Category Archives: Plankton

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Amusing Monday: Odd-looking pyrosomes more familiar in the tropics

“I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.”English biologist Thomas H. Huxley, 1849

Warmer-than-normal waters off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia may be responsible for an invasion of all sorts of creatures normally found to the south in more tropical waters. None of these animals has attracted more attention than the bright bioluminescent pyrosomes, which showed up last spring as the waters of the Pacific Ocean were returning to normal temperatures.

Pyrosomes — which comes from the Greek word “pyro,” meaning fire, and “soma,” meaning body —are large colonies of small tunicates. These are invertebrates that feed by filtering sea water. The individual tunicates, called zooids, hook together to form tubes. The intake siphon of each zooid is aligned to the outside of the tube, while each discharge siphon is aligned to the inside.

The pyrosomes seen in Northwest waters so far are relatively small, thus fitting their nickname “sea pickles.” Nevertheless, they have impressed scientists who have observed them. The first video, above, was made in late July during the 2017 Nautilus Expedition along the West Coast (Water Ways, Sept. 4).

Hilarie Sorensen, a University of Oregon graduate student, participated in a research cruise in May, traveling from San Francisco to Newport in search of jellyfish that had invaded Northwest waters over the previous two years. She didn’t find the jellies she hoped to see, but she was blown away by the pyrosomes, some more than two feet long, and she wondered what they were up to.

“I am interested in how short- and long-term physical changes in the ocean impact biology,” Hilary was quoted as saying in a UO news release. “With all of these pyrosomes this year, I would like to further explore the relationship between their distribution, size and abundance with local environmental conditions.”

Reporter Craig Welch wrote about the recent findings for National Geographic. He quoted Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center: “For something that’s never really been here before, the densities are just mind-boggling,” she said. “We’re just scratching our heads.”

Even more impressive are the giant pyrosomes that have not shown up in Northwest waters, at least so far. They are rare even in tropical locales. Check out the second video, which shows a pyrosome found in the Canary Islands in North Africa and estimated to be about 12 feet long.

The third video was filmed in Tasmania south of Australia by Michael Baron of Eaglehawk Dive Centre. It shows both a giant pyrosome and a salp, another colonial creature formed of larger individuals. For the full story on the pyrosome, go to the BBC Two program, “Unidentified glowing object: nature’s weirdest events.”

Another good video on YouTube shows a giant pyrosome in the Maldive Islands off southern India.

Oddly enough, pyrosomes seem to light up in response to light, according to information posted on an invertebrate zoology blog at the University of California at Davis. The colonies may also light up in response to electrical stimulation or physical prodding.

When an individual zooid has activated its luminescence, it will trigger a chain reaction throughout the colony with nearby zooids lighting up in turn.

“When many pyrosomes are present in the same general area it’s possible to observe a vivid array of bright, pale lights produced by the many animals,” said Ian Streiter in the blog post.

“It was just this sort of observation that led the great Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) to remark in 1849: ‘I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.’

Ian concluded, “For those lucky enough to be at sea when they’re around, I imagine there are few sights as pleasant as that of the ‘moonlight’ produced by the fire bodies.”

Other information:

Finally, there is this audio report, “Millions of tropical sea creatures invade waters off B.C. coast,” with commentary from Washington state fisherman Dobie Lyons and zooplankton taxonomist Moira Galbraith of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. They appeared on All Points West, CBC Radio, with Jason D’Souza of Victoria.

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:

Amusing Monday: Science is music when data becomes sound

Nearly everyone who deals in scientific information learns to read simple charts and graphs to help visualize the data. As a reporter, I’m often looking for the right graph to bring greater meaning to a story. In a similar way, some people have been experimenting with rendering data into sound, and some of the more musically inclined folks have been creating songs with notes and musical scales.

As with graphs, one must understand the conceptual framework before the meaning becomes clear. On the other hand, anyone can simply enjoy the music — or at least be amused that the notes themselves are somehow transformed from observations of the real world.

The first video on this page, titled “Bloom,” contains a “song” derived from microorganisms found in the English Channel. The melody depicts the relative abundance of eight different types of organisms found in the water as conditions change over time. Peter Larsen, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, explains how he created the composition to Steve Curwood, host of the radio program “Living on Earth.”

      1. Living on Earth

Continue reading

Close call, but Hood Canal may escape a major fish kill this fall

With some luck, southern Hood Canal may avoid a major fish kill this year, as we observe extremely low oxygen levels beginning to dissipate.

oxygen

It looks like the fish around Hoodsport dodged a bullet on Friday when south winds pushed the surface layer of oxygenated water to the north, bringing hypoxic waters up from below, according to data from the Ocean Remote Chemical Analyzer (ORCA) buoy near Hoodsport.

University of Washington researchers watching the conditions issued this alert on Friday: “Hypoxic waters have been observed intermittently at the surface at our Hoodsport mooring — in addition to the Twanoh mooring —consistent with the strong southerly winds and upwelling conditions we’ve been seeing over the past few days.”

Seth Book, who monitors the water conditions for the Skokomish Tribe, said he was on vacation last week and did not make his usual rounds to observe potential fish kills. But we have not heard of any reports of dead or dying marine life along the shores of Hood Canal.

The risk of a fish kill is still present, and another strong wind out of the south has the potential to bring more low-oxygen water to the surface. The layers of water and the timing appear similar to last year, when south winds brought deep-water fish — such as ratfish — to the surface, as Seth recorded in a video. See Water Ways, Sept. 1, 2015.

depth

Each summer, sunny weather brings a growth of phytoplankton that eventually dies, sinks to the bottom and decays, a process that consumes oxygen. The result is extremely low levels of oxygen near the bottom of Hood Canal, a situation that continues until a surge of seawater in late summer or fall pushes in from the Pacific Ocean.

Because of its higher salinity, that seawater comes in along the bottom and pushes up the low-oxygen water, which gets sandwiched between the ocean water and the more oxygenated water near the surface. If the surface layer gets displaced suddenly by the wind, the fish have no place to go to get oxygen. That appeared to be the condition on Friday, but now the middle layer is growing thinner as it mixes with the layers above and below.

Conditions are improving, Seth confirmed, “but the negative side of me still says we have low D.O.” Crabs, shrimp and deep-water fish may be out of the woods for this year, thanks to higher levels of oxygen in the incoming seawater, but mid-level fish are still at risk until the water column equalizes to a greater extent.

In July, areas farther north in Hood Canal, such as Dabob Bay, experienced low-oxygen conditions, which drove a variety of fish to the surface, Seth told me. Of particular interest were thousands of Pacific herring trying to breathe by staying in the upper foot of water along the shore.

“We have dodged something so far this year,” Seth said. “I am hopeful because we are now into September and we can see this intrusion continuing.”

time

Invasive species hitching a ride into Puget Sound

We hear about the “balance of nature,” but it’s not something that we can truly understand until the balance is thrown out of whack by something like climate change or invasive species.

Until I began a recent reporting project for Puget Sound Institute, I never realized that San Francisco Bay was such a hotbed of invasive species. Beginning with the California Gold Rush, ships began moving in and out of the bay in unbelievable numbers, arriving from ports all around the world. Now, more than 200 non-native species are making their permanent home in the bay — including some species that have thoroughly altered the local ecosystem.

So far, we have been lucky in Puget Sound. Experts say we have about 75 firmly established non-native species, yet none of them have created the widespread damage caused in San Francisco Bay by European green crabs and Asian clams or in the Great Lakes by zebra mussels. The video on this page does a good job of telling the Great Lakes story, which has been repeated all over the world.

Once people in Washington state realized how disruptive invasive species can be, the struggle was on to protect Puget Sound from alien invaders — particularly those found in San Francisco Bay, which is just a short hop away on the world scale. My series of stories talks about concerns for Puget Sound and the efforts to control a possible invasion.

Three weeks ago in Water Ways, I described legislation that would reduce state and federal controls over invasive species. See “Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters.”

On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species. Photo: NOAA
On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species.
Photo: NOAA

Invasive species range in size from microscopic viruses to four-foot-long striped bass. In California, the striped bass became a prized sport fish after it was intentionally introduced in 1879. But over the past decade concerns have grown for their effects on the salmon population. The jury is still out on whether high numbers of stripers should be sustained for anglers or the population should be fished down rapidly to save salmon and other species. Check out these stories:

Meanwhile, striped bass have been moving up the West Coast, possibly because of warmer waters due to climate change. A few years ago, a 55-pounder was caught in the Columbia River, and I’ve heard rumors that they have been seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

On the small side, I report on a tiny crustacean, an invasive copepod that has almost entirely displaced native copepods in Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound. Copepods are important prey for small fish, including herring, which feed the larger salmon. The invasive copepods are smaller and more difficult for fish to see, which could have a cascading effect on the entire food web.

Invasive copepod Oithona davisae under magnification Photo: Jeff Cordell, University of Washington
Invasive copepod Oithona davisae
Photo: Jeff Cordell, UW

A major concern for Puget Sound biologists is the European green crab, which could move into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay in ballast water or with warm ocean currents during an El Niño year, like the one just past. As I describe in the new series, a major program involving citizen science volunteers is ongoing in a search to find the first green crabs before they gain a foothold.

Pacific oysters, another non-native species, were intentionally brought to the Northwest from Japan in the early 1900s to replace the native Olympia oyster, which had been decimated by poor water quality. Pacific oysters soon became a mainstay of the shellfish industry in the Puget Sound region and are now growing thick in numerous areas.

European green crab Photo: Washington Sea Grant
European green crab
Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW

Similar introductions of Pacific oysters occurred in California beginning more than 100 years ago, but for some reason the oyster populations never took hold, according to a report in the publication California Fish and Game (PDF 1.7 mb). Finally, in the early 2000s, the invasion began to take off.

“It remains unclear why there should be a successful invasion now, given the failure of previous attempts to deliberately introduce the species both locally and throughout California…,” the report says.

“If populations in Southern California waters do continue to expand and grow, as they have in other areas where they have invaded, it will undoubtedly bring changes to the way our estuarine intertidal habitats function as well as in the way we must manage them.

Pacific oyster Photo: Washington Sea Grant
Pacific oyster
Photo: Washington Sea Grant

“Because Pacific oysters rapidly reach large sizes, they could pose problems related to fouling of maritime equipment, infrastructure, and vessels,” the report continues. “Pacific oysters stand out as one of the most transformative invaders of marine ecosystems.”

As Washington state takes steps to keep alien species from invading Puget Sound from California, California officials may adopt similar measures to block invaders from coming into that state.

Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris Symer:

Hood Canal changes color from growth of white plankton

Hood Canal cloaked in light green from heavy plankton growth. NASA image: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response
Hood Canal cloaked in light green from heavy plankton growth.
NASA image: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

From space, Hood Canal is easily recognized by its new shade of bimini green, a color that stands out clearly from the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, as shown in the photo above.

The color is caused by a large bloom of coccolithophore, a single-celled phytoplankton bearing a shell made of white calcium carbonate.

A more detailed image of the plankton bloom. NASA image: Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from USGS
A more detailed image of the plankton bloom.
NASA image: Jesse Allen, with Landsat data from USGS

Teri King of Washington Sea Grant spotted the unusual color more than a week ago from the ground while driving along Hood Canal.

“I thought to myself, ‘Am I dreaming of the Cayman Islands?’” she reported on her Facebook page. “I pulled over to the side and took a few photos to document my observations. I then had an opportunity to grab a water sample. Yep, a Coccolithophore bloom from Quilcene to Lilliwaup.

“It is hard to miss a bloom of this color,” Teri continued on Facebook. “We don’t see them often, but when we do it is remarkable. The water takes on a tropical blue green appearance with white speckles.”

Scanning electron micrograph of plankton Emiliania huxleyi
Scanning electron micrograph of plankton Emiliania huxleyi
Image: Alison R. Taylor, U. of North Carolina Wilmington

The photo from space (top) was taken last Sunday from NASA’s Aqua satellite with equipment used to capture the natural color. On Wednesday, a more detailed image (second photo) was taken from the Landsat 8 satellite.

Reporter Tristan Baurick describes the phenomenon in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. The single-celled plankton are not harmful to people or animals, so the bloom won’t affect shellfish harvesting. Hood Canal, as we’ve discussed many times, is prone to low-oxygen conditions, often exacerbated by massive blooms of plankton, which reduce oxygen through the process of decay.

The last major bloom of this kind in Hood Canal was noted in northern Hood Canal during the summer of 2007. Samples taken at that time showed the species of coccolithophorid to be Emiliania huxleyi, according to a report for the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program.

NASA’s photos and description of the latest bloom can be found on the Earth Observatory website, which also includes just about all you need to know about coccolithophores.

Hood Canal is green alright, up close and far away. Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun
Hood Canal is green alright, up close and far away.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Amusing Monday: Strange creatures and other ocean phenomena

Once in a while, a video shows up featuring some amazing phenomena not well known by most people. This is the case with a YouTube video by Mind Warehouse called “Ten Ocean Phenomena You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”

I’ve featured several of the phenomena you’ll see in this video from my “Amusing Monday” series, but I admit that I did not know that some of these things even exist — and at least one photo appears to be a hoax that fooled the producers of the video on this page.

I’ve searched out a little more about each of the phenomena with links if you would like to learn more about any of these strange goings on.

Giant pyrosome

Thousands of self-cloned animals called tunicates occasionally come together to form a giant hollow tube that may grow to 60 feet long, according to Oceana’s Ocean Animal Encyclopedia. Giant pyrosomes are bioluminescent, producing their own light.

Because the tunicates can reproduce by cloning, the colony can regenerate its damaged parts to keep the tube intact. The tunicates that form pyrosomes are related to those found in the Salish Sea. Check out Emerald Diving’s tunicates page.

Megan Garber has written a story for The Atlantic, accompanied by a video, called “12 reasons pyrosomes are my new favorite terrifying sea creatures.”

Circles on the ocean bed

In 1995, divers discovered what looked like strange “crop circles” like those reported in farm fields, but these were on the ocean bottom near Japan. Other circles were found, but it took a decade before it was determined that male pufferfish make the circles as part of a mating ritual.

“When the circles are finished, females come to inspect them,” according to an article in LiveScience by Douglas Main. “If they like what they see, they reproduce with the males, said Hiroshi Kawase, the curator of the Coastal Branch of Natural History Museum and Institute in Chiba, Japan. But nobody knows exactly what the females are looking for in these circles or what traits they find desirable, Kawase told LiveScience.”

Striped icebergs

Most icebergs are white, but all sorts of blue-striped icebergs can be found in nature. They are the result of water filling a crevice and freezing so fast that no bubbles form. Green stripes form when algae-rich water freezes. Brown, yellow and black are the result of sediments being picked up by the water before it freezes. See undocumented photos and story by Mihai Andrei in ZME Science.

Red tide

Red tides can be found all over the world. Although “red tide” is a term often associated with poisonous plankton, many of the orange and red tides do not produce toxins harmful to people or marine life.

In Puget Sound, blooms of a dinoflagellate called Noctiluca sometimes create what appear to be works of art, as I described in Water Ways in June of 2013. Eyes Over Puget Sound, a program that monitors surface conditions, frequently presents pictures of colorful algae blooms, including a new edition published this morning.

Whirlpool

One of the strongest whirlpools in the world is at Saltstraumen, a fjord in Norway where a massive exchange of water rushes through an opening just 500 feet wide. Review the video “Deepest Hole in the Ocean.”

Brinicle

When salt-rich water streams into the sea, it can form an underwater finger of ice called a brinicle, sometimes referred to as “the ice finger of death.” The super-cooled briny water is colder than the surrounding sea, so the stream reaches out and freezes as it goes. See the article by Douglas Main in LiveScience or check out the blog post in Water Ways from November 2011.

Killer wave

When big waves come together at sea, the result is often a giant wave large enough to wreck an ocean-going ship or rush to shore with tremendous force. In January of this year, a killer wave — also known as a rogue wave — was recorded along the Pacific Coast in Grays Harbor County at a stream called Joe Creek. See Q-13 TV video “Rogue Wave …”

Frost flowers

When the air is considerably colder than a calm sea or lake, ice crystal can be extruded above the surface to form structures that resemble flowers. This occurs when water vapor sublimes from thin surface ice into the air without passing through the liquid phase. The warm moist air at the surface of the ice rises and quickly freezes in the colder air above.

Conditions leading to frost flowers often occur in the polar regions as new sea ice forms. Once the ice grows a little thicker, the surface cools down and the temperature difference between the ice and atmosphere are too close for the vapor to rise and then freeze.

Robert Krulwich, who hosted a science show for National Public Radio, discussed the phenomenon from the point of view of Jeff Bowman, a University of Washington graduate student in 2009 when he spotted frost flowers on his way back from an expedition to the Arctic.

Baltic and North sea meeting point

In the Mind Warehouse video, the narrator discusses a bunch of pictures purportedly showing the meeting point of the Baltic and North seas. I have been unable to track down all these photos or confirm that any of them were taken at the convergence zone of the Baltic and North seas.

One of the photos appears to have been taken in Alaska, showing the melt water from a glacier converging with ocean water. As in Puget Sound, the lower-density freshwater tends to form a layer over the salty seawater. See Kent Smith’s photo, taken from a cruise ship, and a story about research by the U.S. Geological Survey taken in the Gulf of Alaska.

It’s amusing to see all the myth-versus-fact posts on various Internet sites regarding the question of whether waters from the Baltic Sea actually mix with waters from the North Sea. (Search for “Baltic and North sea mixing.”) I gave up trying to find credible photos, but there exists an actual phenomenon regarding the mixing of the two seas. Wikipedia provides this explanation:

“The Baltic Sea flows out through the Danish straits; however, the flow is complex. A surface layer of brackish water discharges 940 km3 (230 cu mi) per year into the North Sea. Due to the difference in salinity, by salinity permeation principle, a sub-surface layer of more saline water moving in the opposite direction brings in 475 km3 (114 cu mi) per year. It mixes very slowly with the upper waters, resulting in a salinity gradient from top to bottom, with most of the salt water remaining below 40 to 70 m (130 to 230 ft) deep. The general circulation is anti-clockwise: northwards along its eastern boundary, and south along the western one.”

Bioluminescence

Living organisms can be seen to glow during a chemical reaction that involves a light-emitting pigment and an enzyme that serves as a catalyst for the reaction. Depending on the species, bioluminescence may be used to escape from prey, attract prey or signal for a mate. Sometimes researchers can’t tell why an animal has the ability to light up. One of the best write-ups I’ve seen is in Wikipedia.

Last fall, I featured in “Amusing Monday” a tiny creature called a sea sapphire that flashes brilliant hues of green, blue and purple then seems to disappear before your eyes. The organism is a copepod that is able to shift its plates to adjust the wavelength of light reflected from crystals underneath. When the reflected light is shifted far enough into the ultraviolet, the little animals nearly disappear.

Edith Widder, a specialist in bioluminescence, gives a fascinating TED talk on the subject in 2011. You can watch the video called “The Weird, Wonderful World of Bioluminescence,” in which she brings some glowing organisms to the stage.

Finding answers for dangerous decline of Puget Sound steelhead

Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.

Trends

Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part, perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean. Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of the border in the Salish Sea.

More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can complicate the mortality investigation for some species.

The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and universities.

A new report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb) describes the most significant results to date for our official state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s, steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10 percent of their previous average.

“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system, they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are finding.”

Abundance

Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.

While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting that the fish were probably eaten.

In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on coho salmon.

“What is most interesting to date,” states a new report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.”

New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound. Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and estimate steelhead consumption.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal populations may have increased while their other food choices have decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget Sound herring populations were close to their historical averages?

Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound populations.

Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups of identical steelhead, one group infested with Nanophyetus and one not.

Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail — an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s “2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).

Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound, which could help determine the amount and type of plankton available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be answered.

I’ve mentioned in Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern Residents.

It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has been in a long time.

Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead, we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas) encounters an abundance of prey (seals).

Automated monitor provides early warning of harmful algae blooms

Automated equipment installed Monday off the Washington Coast will track concentrations of six species of plankton that could become harmful to humans and marine species.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, collects discrete samples of water and processes them for analysis. Imbedded modules can test for DNA and antibodies to identify the organisms picked up in the seawater. Concentrations of the plankton and their toxins are sent to shore-based researchers via satellite.

The equipment was installed by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington. The device was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Stephanie Moore of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains the benefits of the device in the first video on this page. The second video provides a few more technical details with graphic depictions of the device.

The ESP was deployed in the Juan de Fuca eddy, a known pathway for toxic algae 13 miles off the Washington Coast near LaPush. The remote, self-operating laboratory will operate about 50 feet underwater.

One of the primary targets of the monitoring is Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algae capable of producing domoic acid. This toxin can accumulate in shellfish and can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which can progress to severe illness. Last year, a massive bloom of this toxic algae canceled scheduled razor clam seasons on Washington beaches with untold economic consequences.

The harmful algal bloom (HAB) affected the entire West Coast, from California to Alaska. It was the largest and longest-lasting bloom in at least 15 years, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“Concentrations of domoic acid in seawater, some forage fish and crab samples were among the highest ever reported in this region,” says a factsheet from the service. “By mid-May, domoic acid concentrations in Monterey Bay, California, were 10 to 30 times the level that would be considered high for a normal Pseudo-nitzschia bloom.”

“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast. Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning.”

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is associated with a group of plankton called Alexandrium, typically Alexandrium catenella in the Puget Sound region.

In addition to sampling for Alexandrium and four species of Pseudo-nitzchia, the ESP is monitoring for Heterosigma akashiwo, which is associated with massive fish kills, including farmed salmon.

Anyone can track some of the data generated by the equipment by visiting NANOOS — the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

Early warning of toxic algal blooms can assist state and local health officials in their surveillance of toxic shellfish.

“Anyone can access the data in near-real-time,” UW oceanographer and NANOOS Director Jan Newton told Hannah Hickey of UW News and Information. “It’s an early warning sentry.”