Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel Prizes to make us laugh, then think

Did you know that a cat exhibits properties of both a solid and a liquid, or that a didgeridoo can be a cure for sleep apnea?

I had never even thought of such questions before I reviewed the list of Ig Nobel Prize winners for 2017 and watched last week’s awards ceremony on video.

The Ig Nobel Prize honors real researchers working on subjects that seem off-the-wall. Judges are looking for studies that first make them laugh and then make them think, according to Marc Abrahams, who founded the Ig Nobel awards in 1991. Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, serves as editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

This year’s ceremony, held Thursday at Harvard University, proves that researchers really do have a sense of humor. The theme was “uncertainty.” Between the awards presentations and demonstrations of the research findings, the program contains music, comedy sketches and a coordinated launching of paper airplanes from the audience. All are shown in the 1.5-hour video on this page.

I’m amused by the amount of work that goes into these research projects, many of which have practical, if somewhat obscure, applications to daily life. In fact, one physicist, Russian-born Andre Geim, received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 when he showed how to levitate a small frog with magnets, using the magnetic properties of water. He went on to share an actual Nobel Prize 10 years later for discoveries related to graphene, now considered an advanced building material.

Following are the 10 award winners with links to their published findings. Shown in parentheses is the time stamp for the presentation as seen in the YouTube video.

Ig Nobel Prize in Physics (14:00): “On the rheology of cats”

“Are cats a liquid?” asks Marc-Antoine Fardin as he accepted the Ig Nobel Prize. “I saw this question asked on the Internet. It was based on the common definition that a liquid is a material that can adapt its shape to its container.”

Marc proceeded to show pictures of cats snuggled into baskets, jars, vases and other oddly shaped containers, as a liquid would do. His paper, filled with references to fluid dynamics, suggests that a cat at other times has a high viscosity and a low affinity to adhere to containers — especially those filled with water — thus behaving more like a solid.

Ig Nobel Peace Prize (16:40): “Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome”

Researchers realized they were onto something when a didgeridoo instructor reported that his students were less sleepy during the day and snored less at night after playing the didgeridoo for several months. Careful studies showed that the effect was real. The researchers surmised that tightening the muscles of the upper airways may increase dilation and improve air flow during sleep, thus reducing snoring and bringing greater peace to other occupants of the bed.

Ig Nobel Prize in Economics (29:30): “Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal”

Two Australian researchers asked visitors going through a crocodile farm whether they would be willing to hold a 1-meter-long crocodile and then participate in a survey. People with gambling problems tended to place higher bets after holding a crocodile. One exception was among those who were in a negative mood, in which case they tended to bet less than those who didn’t hold a crocodile. The study supports the idea that emotions — not logic — drive the gambling impulse.

Ig Nobel Prize in Anatomy (33:35): “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”

During a discussion among 19 British doctors, the group wanted to find a way to encourage other doctors to conduct basic research. One doctor threw out the question: “Why do old men have big ears?” Others doubted the basis of the question, and a new study was born. It doesn’t seem that the question of why was answered, but the award recipient, James Heathcote, reported that, on average, men’s ears grow by 2 millimeters each decade.

Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (46:20): “Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect”

In a strange evolutionary process, females of the genus Neotrogia have developed a penislike organ to hold tight to males, while the males lack an external organ for transferring sperm. The recipients of the award were unable to attend the ceremony, but they sent along a video recorded in a cave where the insects were discovered.

Ig Nobel Prize in Fluid Dynamics (52:40): “A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime”

In a report about the sloshing effects within a coffee cup, wine glass and other vessels, Jiwon Han of South Korea found that a person is less likely to spill his coffee while walking backward, although that method also increases the risk of tripping. Another strategy is to hold the cup by its rim rather than its handle — or one can just put a lid over the top. Note: Jiwon was a high school student when he wrote the paper.

Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition (55:25): “What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata”

Three species of bats are known to consume only blood for their food supply. One species, which was thought to take blood from only wild birds, was found to consume the blood of domestic chickens and even humans when their normal food supplies ran low. The research opens the door to public health concerns in the Caatinga forests of Northeastern Brazil, where the bats were found.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (1:03:35): “The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study”

Researchers in France discovered that a higher percentage of people are disgusted by cheese than by any another other type of food. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they were able to identify the location in the brain that becomes stimulated by the disgusting cheese among those who don’t like cheese, whereas the same effect on the brain is not seen among those who like to eat cheese.

Ig Nobel Prize in Congnition (1:10:45): “Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins”

While most people can easily recognize their own face compared to any others, an identical twin does not favor his or her own face over that of the twin. Twins recognize their own face and their twin’s equally well. But, oddly enough, they were more likely to be confused between pictures of themselves and their twins when they felt anxious or self-conscious.

Ig Nobel Prize in Obstetrics (1:14:20): “Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission”

Playing music to an unborn fetus may result in varying responses. But this study found that when the music is played through a speaker placed in the vagina, the effect is greater than when the speaker is placed on the abdomen. More than 100 women went through the procedure, which included an ultrasound image of the fetus. Even at 16 weeks gestation, those receiving the music through the vagina were far more likely to respond with mouth and tongue movements than those hearing via the abdomen.

Farewell to Cassini, which found wondrous worlds not so far away

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the discoveries of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — including the finding of water on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.

Water vapor escapes from geothermal vents on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. // Photo: NASA

The 13-year mission ended Friday when Cassini, running out of fuel, was directed to self-destruct by burning up in the atmosphere of the ringed planet.

“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a story on NASA’s website. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Cassini was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. NASA extended the mission for two years and then again for seven years, as new findings continued to emerge, with a later focus on Saturn’s moons. An amazing surprise came when a subsurface ocean was found on Enceladus.

“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”

The video on this page reveals some of the feelings that welled up and lingered among the Cassini team after the spacecraft came to its fiery end on Friday.

If you are interested in space discoveries, I recommend a glance at the text, photos and videos shared on NASA’s website. I also enjoyed the “most inspiring, beautiful, and historic” photos taken during the mission and pulled together by Brian Resnick for Vox Media’s website.

As Linda Spilker aptly described it, “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying. But we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”

Travels to the front lines of restoration throughout Puget Sound

In the Puget Sound region, the front lines in the battle for clean water, healthy species and safe seafood include experts from Washington State University Extension and University of Washington Sea Grant.

These are the folks who help property owners understand how their lives are intertwined with natural systems. These are the folks who lead armies of volunteers to monitor changes in the ecosystem and help the rest of us understand how we can improve the environment in our own way.

These folks in the Extension and Sea Grant offices seem to have a special connection with average citizens, and they are some of my favorite people.

I was pleased to see an article in Washington State Magazine about the role that WSU Extension offices play in the Puget Sound region. The article, by Rebecca Phillips, highlights the close relationship between Extension and Sea Grant, especially in Kitsap County.

With artful writing, Becky juxtaposes the beauty of Puget Sound with the ongoing perils that have disrupted the ecosystem. She describes the efforts to turn things around and save this magnificent waterway that so many people call home.

“From Puyallup to Bremerton, Port Townsend to Everett, WSU Extension and research centers are immersed in Puget Sound revitalization through a combination of investigation, stewardship and educational outreach programs,” Becky writes.

She goes on to talk about the various programs — not the least of which is the Puyallup Research and Extension Center and the associated Washington Stormwater Center, which is doing great work to figure out how to remove pollution from toxic runoff coming from roads and developed areas.

The cooperative extension system was established in 1914, linking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to land grant colleges, such as WSU. Traditionally, every county in the country had a local extension office, but in some areas county offices have been consolidated into regional centers.

The National Sea Grant College Program, established by Congress in 1963, is a network of 33 Sea Grant colleges supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to promote the conservation and responsible use of the nation’s waterways.

I have covered most of the issues mentioned in Becky’s article, often in some depth, but her story touches on the essential elements of various restoration projects taking place throughout Puget Sound. It was nice to see such a comprehensive story involving the important problems of our time, with a special emphasis on the frontline folks addressing the issues. For some people, the article may serve as an introduction to the problems of Puget Sound. For others, it is a reminder of the local efforts taking place across the landscape.

Washington State Magazine is a product of the WSU Communications Office. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of WSU and worked in that office one summer while I was a student at the university.

Washington State Magazine

Streaming Solutions: Below the glimmering waters of Puget Sound lie invisible problems

Video extras

Amusing Monday: Satellite captures images that could pass for art

Landsat 8, an American observation satellite, was launched four years ago. Since May of this year, the satellite has recorded more than a million images.

Puget Sound, Aug. 27
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

As one might expect, satellite images of the same place vary over time, considering that clouds, smoke, vegetation and geological phenomena alter the appearance of the Earth’s surface. You can see some differences in the pictures of Puget Sound on this page. The first was taken on Aug. 27 and the second on Sept. 7. The third picture, taken on Dec. 18, 2016, shows Mount Rainier in the lower portion of the photo with Puget Sound in the upper part.

Puget Sound, Sept. 7
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

In some areas, the Landsat photos are so intriguing that they have been compared to works of art. Staffers at Live Science, an online magazine, chose 73 images to share with their readers. See their full collection of “Artistic Views of Earth from Above” at Live Science. I’ve picked some of my favorites and shown them below.

Mount Rainier, Dec. 18, 2016
Photo: U.S, Geological Survey

If you are interested, you can go to the source of the Landsat images, managed by the U.S. Geological Survey. I used a program called EarthExplorer to find the images of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier. Another search engine, LandsatLook Viewer, lets you zoom in on an area of North America or other continents to obtain satellite images. A third approach is GloVis, with its multiple filters to narrow your search.

The datasets are a collaboration between NASA, which developed and launched the satellite, and the USGS, which developed the ground systems for processing and sharing the data.

Following are four of the “artistic views” researched and provided by Live Science, which today is offering 73 fascinating photos of Hurricane Irma.

Putrid Sea // Photo: USGS

Putrid Sea: The various colors formed in a cluster of lagoons on the Crimean Peninsula provides an interesting painting, but the area has a reputation for foul odors caused by the algae that gives the water its color. The proper name of the area is Syvash, but some call it the Putrid Sea. The Syvash is part of the disputed area controlled by Ukraine until Russia sent in troops to annex the area in 2014.

Canyonlands // Photo: USGS

Canyonlands: Yellows, browns and blue characterize Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where the Green and Colorado rivers come together. The rocky and dry area of the park features unique geologic features, including steep canyons, eroded arches and interesting rock formations as well as ancient Native American rock paintings. The blue area in the photo is the peak of Mount Waas. Author Edward Abbey called the Canyonlands “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on Earth — there is nothing else like it anywhere.”

Eye of Quebec // Photo: USGS

Eye of Quebec: One of the Earth’s largest and oldest known craters was formed by the impact of a three-mile-wide meteor some 214 million years ago, experts say. The resulting Canadian lake, Lake Manicouagan, has been called the Eye of Quebec. The original crater was about 62 miles across, but erosion and deposition of sediments has reduced that to about 45 miles today. The island in the center of the lake is known as René-Levasseur Island. I suspect the purple image is produced by selecting one region of the light spectrum.

Green on Blue // Photo: USGS

Green on blue: The swirls of green and blue in the picture are largely phytoplankton floating in the Bering Sea, the body of water that separates Alaska from Russia. The plankton typically grow when there is an abundance of sun and nutrients, often reaching their peak at the end of summer. This photo, taken on Sept. 22, 2014, shows a few scattered white clouds dotting the sky.

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Amusing Monday: Splendid underwater images from EV Nautilus

Exploration Vessel Nautilus has completed its journey north to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where the research team captured plenty of intriguing video, including a close look at the sunken submarine USS Bugara (first video below). All videos are best in full screen.

EV Nautilus, operated by Ocean Exploration Trust, conducts scientific research along the sea bottom throughout the world, specializing in biology, geology and archeology. Education is a major part of the effort, and school curricula are built around live and recorded telecasts from the ship. In addition, a select group of educators and students are invited to go on the expeditions each summer.

This year’s expedition began in May in California, where the ship took data for high-resolution maps of offshore areas never surveyed before. That was followed by an examination of the Cascadia Margin, a geologically active area off the Oregon Coast where the researchers identified bubbling seeps with multibeam sonar.

Dives using remotely operated vehicles began in June when the ship arrived off the Canadian Coast west of Vancouver Island. One dive, which went down to 2,200 meters, captured images of a hydrothermal vent, where water gets expelled after being superheated by the Earth’s magma. Watch the video saved on the Nautilus Facebook page. In another video, the temperature at one vent got so hot that the researchers found themselves cheering as the temperature at the probe kept going up.

I am easily amused, but I have to say that I was intrigued by a 9,000-year-old living reef made of glass sponges that was discovered off the coast of Galiano Island, British Columbia (second video this page).

One amusing video was created while watching a six-gill shark in the Channel Islands off California. Suddenly, a crab came into view carrying another crab (third video below). “It’s an Uber crab!” one researcher commented. “Is that lunch?” another wondered.

Another great shot from the Channel Islands showed a big ball of shimmering anchovies along with a select group of predators, including several fish, a six-gill shark and a sea lion. This video can be seen on the Nautilius Facebook page.

The examination of the submarine Bugara (first video on this page) occurred Aug. 25 off Cape Flattery in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The event was live-streamed with commentary from scientists, archaeologists and historians, as well as veterans who served on the submarine. Bugara was built during World War II and later became the first American submarine to enter the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

After its decommissioning in California, Bugara was being towed to Washington state to serve as a target for a new weapons system. On June 1, 1971, the submarine took on water during transit and sank to the bottom, where it has rested ever since. No injuries occurred during the incident. For historical details, go to Bugara.net, which was set up for former sailors and others associated with the submarine.

A longer 1.5-hour video of the Bugara inspection by ROV can be viewed on the Nautilus Facebook page. This is basically what was viewed online in real time by observers — including a group gathered at Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport.

Another interesting video shot in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shows a siphonophore, a colony of specialized organisms that work together to form a chain of individuals that together are capable of swimming, stinging, digesting and reproducing. Researchers working the 4-to-8-p.m. shift were able to observe more than their share of these interesting colonies, so the group became known as the “Siphono4-8” (video below).

Nautilus currently is moored in Astoria, Ore., where it is scheduled to begin the next leg of its expedition on Wednesday. The goal is to search near Oregon’s Heceta Bank for ancient coastal landscapes that may have been above sea level 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. More live sessions and archived video are planned. Follow these Nautilus links for details:

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic’s final resting place. The 2017 Nautilus expedition, which will continue into November, marks the third year of exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The expedition has been covered by these news media:

With caution, one can avoid the risk of illness when gathering shellfish

If you are planning to gather some shellfish to eat over Labor Day weekend — or anytime for that matter — state health officials urge you to follow the “three Cs” of shellfish — check, chill and cook.

The state’s Shellfish Safety Map shows areas open and closed to harvesting.
Map: Washington State Dept. of Health

At least 10 cases of an intestinal illness called vibriosis have been reported this year to the Washington State Department of Health, all resulting from people picking oysters themselves and eating them raw or undercooked. The disease is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, an organism that occurs naturally and thrives in warm temperatures.

“The shellfish industry follows special control measures during the summer months to keep people who choose to eat raw oysters from getting sick,” said Rick Porso, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, in a news release. “For those who enjoy collecting and consuming their own shellfish, it’s important that they follow a few simple measures to stay healthy.”

The combination of warm weather, lack of rain and low tides all contribute to the growth of bacteria in oysters growing on the beach.

The state Department of Health uses the “three Cs” as a reminder for recreational shellfish harvesters as well as people who gather shellfish from their own beaches:

  • CHECK: Before heading to the beach, make sure that shellfish in the area are safe to eat. The Shellfish Safety Map, updated daily, will tell you where it is safe to gather shellfish. At the moment, many areas are closed because of paralytic shellfish poison produced by a type of plankton. Unlike Vibrio, PSP cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • CHILL: Gather shellfish as the tide goes out, so they are not allowed to sit for long in the sun. Put them on ice immediately or get them into a refrigerator.
  • COOK: Cooking at 145 degrees F. for at least 15 seconds should destroy Vibrio bacteria, health officials say. It is not enough to cook them until their shells open.

Symptoms of vibriosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. The illness usually runs its course in two to three days. For information see “Vibriosis” on the Department of Health’s website.

Symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning usually begin with tingling of the lips and tongue, progressing to numbness in fingers and toes followed by loss of control over arms and legs and difficulty breathing. Nausea and vomiting may occur. PSP can be a life-threatening condition, so victims should seek medical help immediately. For information, see “Paralytic shellfish poison” on the Department of Health’s website.

Besides health advisories, the Shellfish Safety Map mentioned above also includes the water-quality classification, a link to shellfish seasons to determine whether a beach is legally open along with other information,

Some toxic chemicals increase; others decline in Puget Sound fish

The importance of long-term environmental monitoring is driven home in a new study by toxicologists who have spent years examining chemical contamination in Puget Sound fish.

English sole sampling locations include both urban and rural areas of Puget Sound.
Archives of Env. Contamination and Toxicology

After 28 years of monitoring, researchers have confirmed that it is extremely difficult to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Puget Sound food web. In some locations, PCBs are actually increasing in bottom fish some 38 years after these chemicals were banned in the United States.

“Across the board, we’ve seen either no decline or even increases in our English sole, which is really kind of shocking considering all the remediation that has been going on,” said Jim West, a toxicologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who I interviewed for a story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The report, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, provides some bleak news about PCBs, but there are hopeful signs for other chemicals. For example, researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that toxic flame retardants containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers seem to be disappearing rapidly from the ecosystem less than a decade after the most toxic forms of PBDEs were banned in Washington state.

The study went to some lengths to make sure the decline in PBDEs in Pacific herring was not related to other factors — such as size, since the average herring is getting smaller over time.

“I now feel like this is a solid trend, and that’s really exciting,” Jim told me. “I believe it is related to our efforts in source control.”

Of course, we wouldn’t know about these long-term trends in chemical contamination were it not for long-term monitoring efforts. I discussed the importance of monitoring with Sandie O’Neill, a research scientist with WDFW. She is an author of the new study along with Jim West and Gina Ylitalo of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See the related story “Monitoring helps to reveal hidden dangers in the food web” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

“We are changing people’s perspectives about contaminants throughout the (Puget Sound) watershed, including how such contaminants get into the food web,” Sandie told me.

As Sandie describes it, monitoring is needed in many aspects of ecosystem health. It can tell us whether nature is healing itself and whether restoration projects by humans are improving fish and wildlife habitat as well as human health.

Amusing Monday: BirdNote to expand while keeping short radio format

BirdNote, the radio program, has been bringing us the amusing sounds and stories of birds for more than a dozen years. Now, a new managing producer, Jason Saul, is working to expand the horizons of the daily two-minute show that can be heard on more than 200 public radio stations across the country.

Jason chose Bremerton as his personal base of operations. He can work out of his home and head to Seattle for meetings and recording sessions as needed. Jason, who moved from New Orleans, says Kitsap County has everything he needs, and he enjoys the local low-key atmosphere of this area. Read on for more about that later.

BirdNote began as a project of Seattle Audobon, which created a team of writers, scientists and sound artists to portray accurate and intriguing stories of birds. The program went on the air in February 2005, when it was launched by KPLU-FM, an NPR affiliate that now goes by the call letters KNKX.

BirdNote became its own separate nonprofit organization in 2006, funded mainly by donors who love the show. Today, it can be heard in big and small markets across the country, as well as well as in podcast format whenever people choose to listen.

Jason Saul

The two-minute radio show will continue as always, but Jason tells me that he is pushing to expand the storytelling beyond the traditional bird-of-the-day into stories of people as they relate to birds. The Port Orchard Seagull Calling Contest is proposed as a feature story, currently scheduled for October.

Because the two-minute program is already available on numerous podcast websites, BirdNote has begun to offer expanded podcasts for people who can’t get enough. These won’t be heard on the radio, at least for now.

To launch the expanded format, the program commissioned a new theme song, based on the short jingle that introduces each BirdNote segment. The songwriter, Ben Mirin (a.k.a. DJ Ecotone), has a rare love of natural sounds, which he brings back to the studio and adds his own voice to create an amusing beatbox flavor.

“The music is intended to be a statement from BirdNote,” Jason said. “We are trying to say that we are doing things in different ways.”

Here’s the song that DJ Ecotone came up with. Can you identify 12 different bird calls?

      1. DJ-ECOTONE-BIRDNOTE-mash-up

Jason thought it would be nice to introduce the new theme song and longer format by interviewing Mr. Ecotone. I have to admit that I found the interview intriguing, as Ben describes his passion for nature and music. The interview can be heard in the box below.

As for Jason, he, too, has a passion for the environment, and he has embraced the unique style of BirdNote’s storytelling. His goal is to keep the program fresh as people absorb information in new ways.

“I want to maintain the highest journalistic standards,” he told me. “But there’s a sense of change. People are accessing information in different ways.”

Getting people into the stories about birds — such as a narrative report on an organized club of teenage birders in San Bernardino, Calif. — should broaden the interest, he said.

“We don’t want to get away from stories about birds,” Jason said, “but we are not telling stories to birds. We are telling stories to people. The narrative structure of how to tell a story involves people’s voices. I am hoping for an evolution of sound into a place where different stories can be told.”

Transcripts of the podcasts are available for those who would rather read than listen to the stories, Jason noted. People can keep up with the new features and photos on Facebook, Twitter and more, or enjoy the archived programs that were missed the first time around. Extra tidbits can be found on BirdNote blog.

While individual donations are the mainstay of BirdNote’s budget, the organization has begun to accept donations from corporate sponsors compatible with the mission of bringing the wonders of birds to the public.

Jason started his media career in New York and moved in 2003 to New Orleans, where he reported on regional stories, such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. From 2006 to 2011, he served as a researcher and production associate for “American Routes,” a popular radio show featuring Nick Spitzer. Before moving to Bremerton, Jason was director of digital services and corporate development for WWNO, the New Orleans public radio station.

Jason, who lives off Burwell Street in West Bremerton, maintains production equipment in a corner of his house, so he can do much of his work at home. BirdNote is based in Seattle, with offices in one location and a sound studio in another, but Jason always chooses to live in places somewhat removed from the cosmopolitan atmosphere.

“I love working from home,” he told me. “I used to work in a cubicle. The people in Bremerton and Kitsap County are wonderful … so warm and welcoming.”

For an area described by some as a “backwater,” Jason said he finds Kitsap County to be anything but that. “Everybody is on top of everything.”

The public library system is as good as that in New Orleans, he said. The buses run on time, and it is easy to get around.

“The natural beauty is amazing,” he said, adding that Olympic National Park is a true wonder.

Jason said he is open to suggestions, story ideas and general involvement from people who enjoy BirdNote. “The more people involved the better.”

Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
—–

The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.