Category Archives: Plankton

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.”

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.