Category Archives: Shellfish

Olympia oysters fare better than Pacifics in acidified oceans

Our native Olympia oyster may seem small and meek, but its slow-growing nature may serve it well under future conditions of ocean acidification, according to a new study.

Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons
Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons

In fact, the tiny Olympia oysters appear to reproduce successfully in waters that can kill the offspring of Pacific oysters — a species that grows much larger and provides the bulk of the commercial oyster trade in Washington state.

Unlike Pacific oysters, Olympias don’t begin forming their shells until two or three days after fertilization, and the formation progresses slowly, helping to counteract the effects of corrosive water, according to the author of the new study, George Waldbusser of Oregon State University.

Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund said people who work with Olympia oysters have long suspected that they may have some advantages over Pacific oysters. Olympia oysters keep their fertilized eggs in a brood chamber inside the shell until the larvae are released into the water about two weeks later.

In contrast, the eggs of Pacific oysters are fertilized in the open water and the resulting larvae must fend for themselves right away.

While the brood chamber may protect the larvae from predators, the new study showed that the brood chamber does not protect against ocean acidification. Corrosive water still circulates through the mother’s shell, exposing the larvae.

To test how Olympia oysters would do in open waters, the researchers grew baby oysters outside the brood chamber where they were exposed to acidified water, noted Matthew Gray, a former doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He is now conducting research at the University of Maine.

“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to developing young, but we found it does not provide any physiological advantage to the larvae,” Gray said in an OSU news release. “They did just as well outside the brood chamber as inside.”

It appears that a major difference in the development of Pacific and Olympia oysters lies in their reproductive strategies, including differences in managing their energetics.

“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters, even though they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said. “Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring. Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with acidified water.”

The research team found that energy stores in young Pacific oysters declined by 38.6 percent per hour, compared to 0.9 percent in Olympia oysters. Pacific oysters put their energy into building their shells seven times faster than Olympia oysters. The exposure to acidified water affects shell development. While the larval oysters may get through the shell-building stage, they often don’t have enough energy left to survive, Waldbusser said.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of Limnology and Oceanography.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund has been working for nearly 20 years to restore Olympia oysters at 19 priority locations throughout Puget Sound. The new study lends credence to the effort and support for a recommendation by the 2012 Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel called for restoring the native oyster to Puget Sound to build resilience into the ecosystem, according to Betsy Peabody.

“It was a recommendation that came out before we had the critical science to support it,” Betsy told me. “He (Waldbusser) has just given us the underlying research that supports that recommendation. Our grandchildren may be cultivating Olympia oysters rather than Pacific oysters.”

The panel, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, called for maintaining the genetic diversity of native shellfish to provide the species a fighting chance against ecological changes brought on by climate change.

Benefits of the Olympia oyster, including so-called ecosystem services, are described in an article by Eric Wagner in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Healthy oyster reefs offer benefits such as cleaning up the water, protecting shorelines from erosion and increasing habitat complexity, which can expand the diversity of sea life.

So far, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has restored 50 acres of shellfish to Puget Sound, working toward a goal of restoring 100 acres by 2020.

Oyster hatcheries in Washington state underwent a temporary crisis a few years ago when Pacific oyster larvae were dying from acidified seawater pumped into the hatcheries. The water still becomes hazardous at times, but careful monitoring of pH levels has allowed hatchery operators to overcome the problem. When the water in an oyster hatchery moves beyond an acceptable pH level, operators add calcium carbonate to alter the pH and support the oyster larvae with shell-building material.

Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms said older oysters might be affected in the future as ocean acidification progresses. “We know things are going to get worse,” he told me.

Because of their small size and high cost of production, Olympia oysters will never overtake the Pacific oyster in terms of market share, Bill said, but they are in high demand among people who appreciate the history of our only native oyster and its unique taste.

The new research by Waldbusser raises the question of whether the highly commercial Pacific oysters could be bred so that their larvae grow slower and perhaps overcome the effects of ocean acidification.

Joth Davis, senior scientist for Puget Sound Restoration Fund and senior researcher for Taylor Shellfish, said the market is strong for a smaller Pacific oyster, so most growers would not object to one that grows more slowly with greater survival.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to maintain the genetic diversity of Olympia oysters and other native species, as growers begin to think about cultivating more natives. Transplanting species from one area to another and boosting their populations with hatcheries creates a potential to override local populations and weaken overall genetic diversity, Joth said.

Geoduck clams, which can be started in hatcheries and grown on a large scale, don’t appear to be genetically distinct from one place to another in Puget Sound, Joth said.

Researchers have found some evidence that Olympia oysters may be genetically distinct when comparing one area of Puget Sound to another. But finding genetic differences does not always mean the population is uniquely adapted to that area, Joth said. Variations might relate to a random population that settles in a specific location. Sometimes it takes careful study to make sense of the differences.

Rich Childers, Puget Sound shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state currently has no firm rules for transferring native species from one place to another. With growing interest in cultivating Olympia oysters, sea cucumbers and other native species, the agency is opening discussions about what kind of controls might be needed.

“We’ve learned lessons from salmon that you can’t spread everything from hell and gone,” Rich said. “Should we be looking at some management or hatchery guidelines that would help maintain genetic diversity? Should we have laws or policies? These are the questions that are just starting to surface.”

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.”

Elwha River:
a continuing march
on the way to renewal

It has always been a question to ponder: Will the most significant changes to the Elwha River ecosystem occur upstream of where two dams have been removed or downstream where the river enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca?

Photo: Olympic National Park
Photo: Olympic National Park

Soon after each dam was torn down in succession — the lower one first — salmon began migrating upstream, while more than 30 million cubic yards of sediment began moving downstream.

It could take a number of years to rebuild the extensive runs of salmon, including the prized chinook for which the Elwha was famous among salmon fishermen across the country. Will we ever see the legendary 100-pound chinook return to the Elwha, assuming they ever existed? That was a question I explored in a story for the Kitsap Sun in September 2010.

On the other hand, massive amounts of sediment have already spilled out of the Elwha River, building an extensive delta of sand and gravel, including about 80 acres of new habitat and two miles of sandy beach.

Reporter Tristan Baurick focused on the dramatic shoreline changes already taking place at the mouth of the Elwha in a well-written story published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The Coastal Watershed Institute, which is monitoring the shoreline near the mouth of the Elwha has documented increases in critical forage fish populations, including surf smelt, sand lance, eulachon (candlefish) and longfin smelt. See CWI Blog. These fish feed a host of larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

Tristan describes the changes offshore, where an area starved of sediment is turning into prime habitat for starry flounder, Dungeness crab and many other animals. Rocky outcroppings that once provided attachment for bull kelp is giving way to fine sand, which allows for colonization by eelgrass and a host of connected species. I described some of the early changes in the flora in a Kitsap Sun story in March of 2013.

For people to view the restoration first-hand, I described a day trip to the Elwha in a Kitsap Sun story in April of 2013. Along the way, you can check out the history, enjoy the vantage points and learn about the changes taking place. Tristan offers a suggestion worth heeding to ensure ongoing beach access.

“Access to the beach is granted by the dike’s owners. They could take that away if the area’s overwhelmed with trash, noise and other nuisances, so keep that in mind when you visit.”

If you’d like to see a video record of dam removal and ecosystem recovery, you may wish to view the film “Return of the River” to be shown at Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre on Friday, March 13. The film will be followed by a panel discussion involving the film’s producers, John Gussman and Jessica Plumb. For details, check the Kitsap Sun website.

How to help crabs survive when you
lose a crab pot

A simple alteration to recreational crab pots could save thousands of crabs from going to waste each year, all because crabs are unable to escape from lost crab pots that keep on working, according to a new study.

Paul Rudell of Natural Resources Consultants, left, and Jason Morgan of Northwest Straits Foundation place crabs into a trap to test the escape system. Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation
Paul Rudell of Natural Resources Consultants, left, and Jason Morgan of Northwest Straits Foundation place crabs into a trap to test the escape system.
Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation

The Crab Pot Escapement Study, commissioned by the Northwest Straits Foundation, is the first to measure how well crabs use the escape routes provided in the design of every crab pot sold in Washington state.

The findings were somewhat of a surprise, according to Jason Morgan of the Northwest Straits Foundation. Jason told me that he is eager to get the information out to recreational crabbers, who could voluntarily take steps to reduce crab mortality. The findings might even lead to revised regulations for crab pots.

Of course, the best thing that crabbers can do is to avoid losing their pots in the first place. For tips, check out the brochure from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (PDF 2.9 mb) or the Northwest Straits website. About 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in Puget Sound, representing the wasteful deaths of nearly 200,000 crabs, according to a revised estimate derived from the new study.

The study, in partnership with Natural Resources Consultants, placed live Dungeness crabs into six common types of crab pots, using 13 various configurations. After the seventh day, the biodegradable escape cord (“rot cord”) was severed to provide an opening through which the crabs could escape — at least in theory. The researchers then measured the time it took for the crabs to get out, if they could.

An escape ring tied with escape cord allows crabs a way out. Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation
An escape ring tied with escape cord allows crabs a safe exit.
Photo: Northwest Straits Foundation

One thing the researchers learned was that crab pots with hinged doors tended to keep the crabs trapped, especially when the door was located away from the edge of the pot. The doors simply stayed closed after the escape cord broke free.

A modification of the doors with a bungee cord significantly increased the number of crabs that could escape. The doors were modified to spring open when the escape cord broke.

The best configuration of all involved the use of escape rings — a circular opening at least 4.25 inches across. These rings are required by law in all crab pots to allow females and under-sized males to get away before the pot is brought to the surface or in the event that it becomes derelict.

Many crab pots sold today tie the rings into the crab pot with escape cord. When the cord breaks, the ring falls away to provide a larger opening for the crabs to get out.

“It’s still a small opening for the crab to crawl out,” Jason said. “We did not expect it to be effective at all, but it works very well.”

In some crab pots, the required rings are welded into place on the iron cage. It would be easy enough for people to cut the rings out with a strong pair of wire cutters and then tie them back in with escape cord, Jason said.

Manufacturers of crab pots have become interested in the study, Jason told me, and he expects some will quickly convert to tying the rings in place rather than welding them. The difference in cost, if any, should be small, he said, and drawbacks seem minimal.

Requiring this method of escape for future crab pots sold in Washington could be another result of the study, but nothing is proposed at this time, Jason said. The next round of studies is likely to look at commercial crab pots, which are generally larger but still require an escape route in case they become lost.

A related issue that needs attention is the escape cord, which is made of cotton and designed to deteriorate in a reasonable period of time when left in saltwater. Cords that last longer are likely to cause more crabs to die. Studies have shown that approved escape cord takes between 30 and 148 days to disintegrate, with most people selecting larger cord that can last toward the longer end of that range.

“That is certainly something that we are not happy with,” Jason said. “We would like to see regulations that would require escape cord to be smaller.”

A smaller cord would break sooner and allow more crabs to survive when a crab pot is lost, though it would require crabbers to change the cord more often. That would seem to be a small inconvenience to avoid the kind of waste often seen in photos of derelict crab pots filled with dead and dying crabs. Even longtime experienced crabbers can lose a pot now and then, Jason said.

Northwest Straits Foundation is working on one or more videos to help people see the benefits of providing escape for crabs and to demonstrate how to modify their crab pots.

According to the study, the right modifications to crab pots could allow 99 percent of the crabs to get free when a crab pot is lost in the depths of Puget Sound.

Hood Canal council names winners of environmental awards

Beards Cove Community Organization and Newberry Hill Heritage Park Stewards are this year’s winners of the Hood Canal Environmental Achievement Awards.

The awards, sponsored by the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, recognize people and groups that have taken actions and fostered relationships to improve the health of the Hood Canal environment.

The 500 property owners in the Beards Cove community were credited with developing relationships with Great Peninsula Conservancy and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to restore an estuary near the Union River on the North Shore of Hood Canal.

The Beards Cove Restoration Project completes the final segment of 1.7 miles of unbroken saltmarsh along the shoreline. The project removed 45,000 cubic yards of fill, derelict structures and a septic system. The work included reconfiguring the shoreline and planting the area with native vegetation, all to enhance salmon habitat.

The Beards Cove project was described in a Kitsap Sun story by Arla Shepherd Bull and in a Water Ways blog entry I wrote about the history of the Beards Cove development leading to the need for restoration.

Stewards working to improve Newberry Hill Heritage Park are protecting fish and wildlife in the area, which includes the Anderson Creek watershed, which drains to Hood Canal. The group built a fence to protect a beaver dam, which provides habitat for coho and other fish, along with a foot bridge that maintains access to a flooded trail. The group helped develop a forest-management plan to restore ecological health to the park. Members are known for expanding their knowledge about forests, streams and wetlands.

When writing the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” I talked to steward Frank Stricklin, who probably knows the park land better than anyone else. The specific story, titled “Health of forests plays key role in health of Puget Sound,” focused on forests and other upland areas.

The awards will be presented Friday at a conference that will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. Speakers will include Donna Simmons, one of the council’s founders who will describe the history of the organization. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer will discuss his Save Our Sound legislation and how to move forward with ecosystem restoration. I will contribute to the discussion by talking about my reporting career as it relates to Hood Canal.

The event will be held at Lucky Dog Casino Event Center. Those who would like to attend should contact Robin Lawlis at the coordinating council, (360) 394-0046 or rlawlis@hccc.wa.gov. For information, check the fact sheet on the HCCC’s website.

The Hood Canal Coordinating Council was established in 1985 to improve the water quality of Hood Canal. It has expanded its mission to include improving the ecological health of the canal. The group is made up of the county commissioners in Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties along with the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Skokomish tribes.

Port Gamble sewage plant to protect shellfish, recharge groundwater

The historic town of Port Gamble is about to get a new-fangled sewage-treatment plant, one that will allow highly treated effluent to recharge the groundwater in North Kitsap.

Port Gamble

The old treatment plant discharges its effluent into Hood Canal, causing the closure of about 90 acres of shellfish beds. After the new plant is in operation, those shellfish beds are likely to be reopened, officials say.

The new facility will be built and operated by Kitsap Public Utility District, which owns and manages small water systems throughout the county. The Port Gamble plant will be the first wastewater operation to be managed by the KPUD, which views the project as a step toward reclaiming more of Kitsap County’s wastewater by putting it to beneficial use, said manager Bob Hunter.

The PUD already manages the Port Gamble water system, which will undergo a future renovation, he said. Dealing with the community’s sewage is the next logical step.

“Nobody can do reclaimed water without the sewage-treatment part of the equation,” Bob told me, “and it seems potentially more efficient to have one entity do it.”

In a related development, the district is expected to ask Kitsap County voters for authority to own the plant as well as operate it. Under its current authority, the district can own water utilities but not sewer utilities.

A $2-million state grant to eliminate the discharge of sewage into Hood Canal requires that a public entity own the sewer system. To comply with that requirement, Mason County PUD 1 will take over ownership until Kitsap PUD obtains the needed authority, Bob noted.

The KPUD commissioners are expected to decide on Tuesday whether to place a measure on November’s ballot. Hunter said he doesn’t expect opposition, but he hopes to address any concerns people may have. The commissioners meet at 9:30 a.m. in their Poulsbo office.

The new treatment plant will be a membrane bioreactor, a type of filtering system capable of producing effluent close to the quality of drinking water. The plant, which comes assembled, will treat up to 100,000 gallons of sewage per day. That’s enough capacity to serve the existing homes in Port Gamble. And if the town’s redevelopment is approved (Kitsap Sun, Jan. 24, 2013), as proposed by owner Pope Resources, the plant could serve up to 350 homes — provided the old sewer pipes are replaced to reduce the amount of stormwater that leaks in.

The plant will be located on 1.3 acres near Carver Drive, south of Highway 104. Effluent will be pumped to a new drainfield at the top of a nearby hill. Eventually, water from the plant could be used to irrigate forestland or else lawns and ballfields in the town.

Construction is expected to get underway soon, with the system operational by May of next year. The entire project, including the treatment plant, pumping system, pipes, drainfield and site work, is expected to cost $5 million with most of the cost paid by Pope Resources.

The KPUD has no plans to operate other sewer systems at this time, Hunter said, but the district hopes to be in a position to respond to community needs, as it as done with failing water systems. Small sewage-treatment plants could be feasible where a lot of septic systems are failing, he noted, but state law precludes the use of sewers in rural areas except during a health emergency. Even then, the systems must serve only existing needs, not future growth, he noted.

Without snowpack, Kitsap Peninsula is entirely dependent on the amount of rain that falls on the peninsula. With limited storage, future water supplies can be bolstered by recharging the groundwater with high-quality sewage effluent or by using effluent to replace drinking water used for irrigation and industrial processes.

The Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant, which produces an average 3.2 million gallons of water each day, is undergoing a major upgrade to produce water that can be used for a variety of uses in nearby Silverdale. In preparation, Silverdale Water District has been installing a new piping network to bring the reclaimed water into the community.

“We have been talking for a long time about getting water into the ground instead of dumping it into Puget Sound or Hood Canal,” said Bob Hunter. “With this project in Port Gamble, we can learn and be prepared when other situations come along.”

Studies of bottom fish help fill in key portions of Puget Sound food web

In a new video, Dayv Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does a great job explaining how scientific trawling provides information about the kinds of creatures that hang out on the bottom of Puget Sound.

The video shows a big net being brought to the surface filled with crabs and all sorts of strange creatures, which are then sorted and measured right on the deck of the Chasina. This research, which has been going on for years, provides information about how populations of marine species are changing over time.

Two years ago, I joined Dayv and his crew aboard the same trawler while working on the Kitsap Sun series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” With most of the attention focused on salmon, I thought it was important to highlight lesser-known fish that play a key role in the Puget Sound ecosystem.

You may wish to check out my story, “Problems with bottom fish are coming into view.” While you’re at it, maybe take a look at the graphic “Ten Puget Sound fish you may not know much about.”

Click on image to see interactive graphic. Kitsap Sun graphic
Click on image to see interactive graphic.
Kitsap Sun graphic

I hate to say it, but one reason that many marine fish get short shrift, compared to salmon, is that they are not as commercially valuable — but that does not mean they are not important.

Overfishing, combined with degraded habitat conditions and pollution caused many of these species to decline through the years. Three species of rockfish are now federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. For a recent update on rockfish, check out Water Ways from June 18.

It is encouraging to know that forage fish, including herring, will receive increased scrutiny with a $1.9-million boost from the Legislature, allowing studies on population, habitat and viability. Reporter Tristan Baurick wrote about this new appropriation in Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun. The money should allow researchers to provide a nice status report, and I hope money will be available for ongoing monitoring into the future.

As for those species of fish caught by trawling, it’s time to figure out what role they play in the Puget Sound food web and what it will take to improve their conditions.

During the 1970s, new-fangled fish-finders and commercial fishing gear allowed for more intense fishing than ever before. State resource managers made a critical mistake in assuming that because fishing was going well, populations of bottom fish must be doing OK. Managing fishing using a steady-state fishing rate without adequate monitoring has been the downfall of fish populations throughout the world.

In Puget Sound, “the first sign of a problem came when there were no fish,” Dayv told me, only slightly exaggerating the problem.

Now the effort is to rebuild the populations, and it will likely take more than a trawler to understand where certain species reside and what is posing the greatest threat to recovery. Surveys using remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, have become an important tool, shedding light on fish living in shallow water and rocky areas where the trawler cannot go.

One thing that is still needed, however, is a map of the various types of underwater habitat throughout Puget Sound. Knowing the locations and extent of rocky versus sandy or muddy bottoms could provide a basis for estimating entire populations of marine species. Researchers are working on a computer model to do just that, but more underwater surveys are needed.

If residents of this unique region hope to restore Puget Sound to health, we must not forget about the bottom fish, which for many people tend to be out of sight and out of mind.

New website reveals strategies for improving Hood Canal ecosystem

If you want to know how the Hood Canal Coordinating Council is working to protect and restore Hood Canal, take a look at a new website created by the council. It is called OurHoodCanal.org.

Hood

The website is an attractive and functional companion to the “Hood Canal Integrated Watershed Plan” (PDF 325 kb), a five-year strategic plan focused on programs that can be accomplished by the coordinating council and its members.

Hood Canal Coordinating Council is made up of county commissioners from Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties, along with leaders from the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes.

When planning efforts began five years ago, the idea was to create an “integrated” plan that would recognize all the ecological functions taking place in the Hood Canal watershed and create a set of strategies for addressing all the various problems.

The effort got off to a good start by identifying many of the problems, ranging from declining fish populations to fragmented upland habitats. But the complexity of those problems, the variability of conditions and the numerous agencies responsible for data and decisions eventually overwhelmed the planners. It was as if they were trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle containing a million pieces.

The coordinating council decided to refocus the effort on issues that are under its purview while maintaining the long-term vision of a sustainable Hood Canal ecosystem that benefits humans in a variety of ways.

“Ideally, we will eventually get to all the issues,” said Scott Brewer, the council’s executive director. “The board decided it wanted to focus on something that would be the first strategic priorities and then pick up the other things over time.”

In this context, the plan identifies five focal components:

  • Shellfish,
  • Commercial shellfish harvesting,
  • Forests,
  • Forestry, and
  • Salmon.

Also, four major “pressures” are called out for special attention:

  • Commercial and residential development,
  • Transportation and service corridors,
  • Climate change and ocean acidification, and
  • Wastewater discharges and stormwater runoff.

These are issues that the county and tribal leaders were already addressing in one way or another, either through local actions or through the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which is recognized under state law.

The new website OurHoodCanal.org highlights the connections between human well-being and natural resources. The first findings focus on three natural resource indicators — one each for shellfish, forests and salmon — plus five indicators for human well being — positive emotions, communication, traditional resource practices, communities, natural resource industries and access to local food.

A survey last year, for example, showed that Hood Canal generates positive emotions (at least most of the time) for the vast majority of respondents, yet most Hood Canal residents say they don’t often work together to manage resources, prepare cultural events or solve community challenges.

The website also includes a section about what people can do to help Hood Canal.

“This is a work in progress,” Scott said about the planning effort and related website. “We can start by telling a really good story about what is happening in Hood Canal, then going on to make connections and asking whether we are doing the right things.”

The first strategies identified in the plan involve:

  • Working together on local land-use planning,
  • Identifying failing septic systems and other sources of bacterial pollution,
  • Continuing projects to restore healthy runs of salmon,
  • Furthering a mitigation program to fully compensate for the effects of development,
  • Finding ways to adapt to climate change, and
  • Developing a regional plan to reduce stormwater problems.

Meanwhile, the coordinating council has developed a new ranking system for setting priorities for salmon restoration. Refinements will come later, Scott said, but the system is currently being used to identify restoration projects to be proposed for funding later this year.

Under the Salmon Recovery Prioritization (see “guidance” document) projects will be given more consideration if they help highly rated salmon stocks, such as fall chinook in the Skokomish River, summer chum in the Big Quilcene and so on. Projects are given points for addressing specific habitat types and restoration actions deemed to be the most important.

If successful, this approach will result in funding the most important restoration projects, as determined through a more precise ranking process than ever used before, although it does leave room for judgment calls.

While the Hood Canal Coordinating Council works on projects in Hood Canal, other groups continue with similar efforts in other watersheds.

“Everyone is prioritizing one way or another,” Scott told me, “but they haven’t looked at it like we have.”

Scott said agencies and organizations that grant money for salmon recovery or ecosystem restoration could call for an improved ranking process throughout Puget Sound.

“A lot of money gets spread everywhere,” he noted, “but there are some key spots throughout Puget Sound that need it more than others.”

Search intensifies
for remaining
spartina invaders

Rain and shine. Rain and shine. Rain and shine.

These are the days of near-perfect growing conditions for plants in Western Washington. If you are battling noxious weeds, it might seem as if the weather is working against you, favoring these destructive invaders along with other plants.

Crews removing spartina from Tulalip Bay. Dept. of Agriculture photo
Crews remove spartina from Tulalip Bay.
Washington Department of Agriculture photo

But one team of weed warriors, hoping to eradicate an invasive plant called spartina, sees this growing season another way. Instead of hindering the eradication effort, this rapid growth of spartina — also known as cordgrass — makes it easier to locate and eliminate the last of the invaders.

“The bad thing is you get a lot more plants than you expect,” said Chad Phillips, spartina coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “The good thing is that a lot of the plants you might not have seen (in a normal year) have germinated, so you can get rid of them.”

Over the past 12 years, the total estimated acreage occupied by spartina in Washington state has been reduced from 9,000 acres to just eight acres. It has been a coordinated effort involving local, state and federal agencies; tribal governments; universities; private landowners; and many volunteers.

The search-and-destroy mission will continue, because the plants have a way of coming back, sometimes showing up in new locations.

Left unchecked, spartina spreads rapidly, crowding out native vegetation while converting ecologically important mudflats into meadows choked with a hardy marsh grass. Besides wrecking shellfish beds, spartina wipes out shoreline habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl while increasing the risk of flooding, experts say.

Those involved in the spartina effort this year are expected to look for spartina plants — and eliminate any they find — over more than 80,000 acres of saltwater estuaries and 1,000 miles of shoreline in 12 counties.

Spartina_map

After working for years in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, spartina crews turned their focus last year to Puget Sound, where about 90 percent of the remaining spartina-infested acreage can be found. The map on this page uses black triangles to depict areas where spartina has been eradicated.

When crews go into an area, they remove all the plants they can find. Individual plants or clusters of plants can be dug by hand, whereas larger infestations may be treated with herbicide.

Crews typically return to a given site twice in a year. A site is considered eradicated if no plants are seen for at least three years with a minimum of six surveys. After that, they will typically return once a year to make sure the plants don’t come back.

The crews are scheduled to visit every shoreline at least once every five years to look for any new infestations of spartina.

The workers obtain permission from property owners before removing or killing plants. But often the neighbors are unaware of what they are doing. Chad said it is not unusual for neighbors to approach crew members to ask why they are there. Sometimes, the crews are suspected of being shellfish poachers.

“If you see us working, feel free to come over and say ‘hi,’” Chad said. “We’ll be on a beach in knee boots with a shovel.”

In Kitsap County, the largest infestation has been at Doe-Kag-Wats, an estuary on the Port Madison Indian Reservation north of Indianola in North Kitsap. After years of removing truckloads of vegetation, the total infestation there was down to 61 square feet last year.

Another infested area has been Foulweather Bluff near Hansville, where 24 square feet of spartina were removed.

Areas considered active because of recent infestations but where no plants were found last year are Manzanita Bay on Bainbridge Island and Coon Bay near Manchester.

Mason and Thurston are the only counties that have never had an infestation, but beaches in those counties remain part of the ongoing five-year survey cycle.

In Puget Sound, most of the spartina found has been identified as the species Spartina anglica, or common cordgrass. This species was introduced to Snohomish County in 1961. The largest infestation in the state today is an area in South Skagit Bay and Port Susan near Stanwood.

Bays on the Pacific Ocean contain primarily Spartina alterniflora, known as smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass. It was introduced to Willapa Bay in the late 1800s, eventually spreading to 8,500 acres. Since 2003, about 99.9 percent of that spartina acreage has been killed or removed, making it one of the largest eradications of an invasive species anywhere in the country.

Spartina patens, known as saltmeadow cordgrass or salt marsh hay, is a native of the Atlantic Coast. It was discovered in the 1990s at Dosewallips State Park on Hood Canal. Dosewallips held the only known infestation of S. patens in Washington state until 2013, when a survey crew found the plant on Navy property on the Toandos Peninsula across from the Bangor submarine base. After receiving permission, the site was treated in 2014. Ongoing efforts will be necessary, as the invasive plant blends in well with native marsh plants.

For a description of the spartina infestations and treatments in each county, check out the “2014 Progress Report” (PDF 41 mb) for the Spartina Eradication Program.

Amusing Monday: Science adventures revealed in videos

Starfish that live symbiotically inside a tube sponge were long believed to assist the sponge with its cleaning activities, while the starfish received a protective home for being such a helpful companion. This type of mutually beneficial symbiosis is called “mutualism.”

But this long-held assumption — that both the brittlestar and gray tube sponge were benefitting from the deal — turned out to be wrong when researchers took a close look at the relationship.

The video describing this whole affair and the research behind it became a finalist in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge, judged by 37,795 students in 1,600 classrooms in 21 countries. Ocean 180 is all about connecting science to people, and the video challenge is designed to help scientists turn their discoveries into stories.

I really like the concept of this contest. Joseph Pawlik, one of the researchers involved, did a good job telling the story of the starfish and the sponge in the video production, assisted by Jack Koch of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. They called the video “The maid did it! The surprising case of the sponge-cleaning brittlestar.”

I won’t give away who killed whom, but answers to the murder mystery are revealed toward the end of the 3-minute video.

A much more extensive research project involves monitoring the largest active volcano off the coast of Oregon, a location called Axial Seamount. University of Washington researchers and students conducted the research and produced the video about the equipment used in an extreme environment and how the data are transmitted back to land via a fiber optic cable.

While the videos of the starfish-and-sponge and offshore volcano were among the top 10 finalists, neither were among the top award winners.

You may wish to watch the two first-place videos:

“Drones at the Beach” (amateur category), including University of Miami and Delft University researchers.

“Dolphin Research Center Blindfold Imitation Study” (professional category), involving researchers at the Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, Florida.

Second place: “How to Treat a Bruised Flipper” by Claire Simeone at Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito, Calif.

Third place: “Rescuing the Gentle Giants,” led by Charles Waters at the University of Auckland, Institute of Marine Science.

All 10 videos can be viewed with links at 2015 Finalists.

First-place winner Kelly Jaakkola of the Dolphin Research Center said Ocean 180 is a way to make a connection with the next generation of ocean scientists:

“For a lot of students, science can have a negative, scary image. They picture people in white lab coats talking about topics that nobody understands in the most boring, unimaginative way possible. If we want to get kids excited about science, we need to change that image.”

Third-place winner Charles Waters said some of the most inspiring science writing uses analogies, metaphors and similes to describe the scientific process and research findings:

“Video helps lift images from print, and the message comes closer to being an experience for the audience in contrast to a mere information stream.”

The Ocean 180 Video Challenge is sponsored by Florida Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence.