Category Archives: Red tide, algae

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petition seeks to revoke Department of Ecology’s clean-water authority

Citing pollution problems in Puget Sound, an environmental group is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Washington state’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

Northwest Environmental Advocates, based in Portland, says a review of 103 discharge permits issued by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a failure to control nitrogen pollution. Excess nitrogen reduces oxygen levels in the water and triggers algae blooms, resulting in serious problems in Puget Sound, according to a petition submitted to the EPA.

“Ecology determined that over 80 percent of the human sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound comes from cities and towns, but it continues to issue discharge permits as if it were completely ignorant of these facts,” Nina Bell, the group’s executive director, said in a news release.

“It’s just flat out illegal to issue permits that contribute to harmful pollution levels,” she added. “These permits are the walking dead, existing merely to create the impression that the state is doing its job to control water pollution when it is not.”

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Invasive species need to be on Legislative agenda

With invasive green crabs entering Puget Sound from the north and invasive mussels discovered in Montana to the east, the Legislature will be called on to make some critical funding decisions to ward off potential invaders.

Zebra mussels cover a native mussel in the Great Lakes. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Zebra mussels cover a native mussel in the Great Lakes. // Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Green crabs and freshwater zebra and quagga mussels are not the only aquatic invasive species of concern. As I described in a story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, state officials worry about the potential import of all sorts of harmful species via ballast water and the hulls of vessels.

To fully address the threats through prevention and enforcement, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that $5.2 million per year is needed. That would move Washington ahead of Oregon and Idaho in addressing the problems. Each of those states spent about $1.3 million in 2014, while California spent about $10.7 million. Washington’s current budget for dealing with aquatic invasive species is one of the lowest in the country at $900,000 a year.

Increases in the program would be phased in over six years, increasing from $900,000 a year in the current budget to $2.3 million in the next biennium, according to a proposal to be submitted to the Legislature. It would go to $4.7 million five years from now.

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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

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

Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.

The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term damage to coastal and Great
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it has been associated with the transfer of invasive species throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports where they unload their cargo before moving to their next destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms that hitched a ride.

Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches or underwater areas.

Rules and more rules

To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from another coastal inlet.

Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound from California.

For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today. San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species, including the European green crab and the Asian clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to the shellfish industry in various locations.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74 non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone unnoticed.

In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters” zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.

While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.

The International Maritime Organization has one treatment standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable” organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific treatment systems.

Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may face.

The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the EPA.

The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.

Legislation and politics

That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA. Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth understanding of the bill, read the Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).

The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other things associated with national defense.

The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both houses.

The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.

In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill. Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home, where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan Friedman’s story in Fortune.)

President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. See Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.

Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple, confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly changes to equipment.

Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the environment.

“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that brought the lawsuit against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).

“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard, which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our waters, but this is not one of them.”

The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue strong requirements, the states would not need their own regulations.

Amusing Monday: Blake Shelton partakes of sushi with Jimmy Fallon

Country music star Blake Shelton thought his cup of sake tasted like “Easter egg coloring,” but he kept on asking for more of the rice wine at the Japanese sushi restaurant he was visiting.

“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon convinced Blake to go with him to the restaurant, because Blake had never tried sushi. With cameras rolling, Jimmy demonstrated the finer points of eating the various offerings, but at times Blake seemed to have the upper hand.

Blake’s enjoyment of the experience appears somewhat mixed, as you can see in the first video, but the situation was amusing.

The second video describes a practical joke that the Japanese people have allegedly been pulling on Australians, although they are not the only people in the world to have fallen for this long-running practical joke. I was unable to locate the original producer of the video, but it has been posted numerous times the past few years. I’ve posted the earliest version I could find.

The Japanese people apparently can find amusement in some of their own cultural traditions. Numerous videos called “The Japanese Tradition” were created by the comedy duo of Jin Katagirl and Kentaro Kobayashi, who call themselves the Rahmens. In their short videos, they make light of customs from chopsticks to games. Someone named Frank Prins collected a bunch of these videos and posted them on his YouTube channel.

I’ve posted one of videos with English subtitles called “The Japanese Tradition — Sushi,” which covers the entire experience at a Sushi bar. Another amusing version of this video comes with an English voice narrating the piece. The narrator writes on YouTube that he re-edited the video and tweaked the humor to make it more appealing to a Western audience.

“The Japanese culture is something I have absolutely fallen in love with, and I intend no disrespect by any of the jokes used in the video,” states the unidentified narrator. The reviews were mixed about whether it was appropriate to alter the original.

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.