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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Watching the devastating decline of starfish

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

I went to the beach last week to see some starfish with three trained volunteers. What we found was a scene of devastation on the pier and along the beach at Lofall, located on Hood Canal in North Kitsap.

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Barb Erickson photographs a sea star afflicted with sea star wasting syndrome. Another infected star dangles by one arm.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid

What had been a large population of sea stars, as scientists call them, were now generally missing. Those that remained were mostly dead or dying. Healthy ones were in a minority.

Sea star wasting syndrome is now clearly present on our local beaches, just as it has affected hundreds of locations from Alaska to Mexico.

On Friday, I was fortunate to be in the company of three women who knew quite a bit about sea stars. They were careful in their observations and precise in their measurements, able to provide data to a network of observers measuring the progress of this disease along the West Coast.

But these three women — Barb Erickson, Linda Martin and Peg Tillery — also expressed their feelings of loss for the sea stars, a creature considered a key part of a healthy marine ecosystem.

As I reported in my story, published Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription), Barb was the first to assess the situation as we arrived at the beach, comparing her observations to just two weeks before.

“‘Oh my!’ shouted Erickson as she reached the base of the pier and took a look at the pilings. ‘I can see right now that there are hardly any (sea stars) here. These corners were just covered the last time. Now these guys are just about wiped out.’”

“’Look at the baby,’ lamented Tillery, pointing to a tiny sea star. ‘He has only four arms, and he’s doing that curling-up thing … We had so much hope for the babies.’”

Melissa Miner, who is part of a coastwide monitoring program, told me that researchers are working hard to find a cause of the advancing affliction. But so far no consistent pattern has emerged to explain every outbreak.

starfish2

A leading hypothesis is that something is causing the sea stars to be stressed, weakening their defenses against the bacteria that eventually kill them. The stressor could be temperature, she said, or possibly other factors such as increased acidity or low-oxygen conditions. Perhaps another organism attacks the immune system, leaving the sea stars vulnerable to an opportunistic bacteria.

Researchers may find multiple pathways to the same conclusion: a dramatic decline in the sea star population, both at the local level and throughout their range along West Coast.

When I hear about a population crash, I think about the basic tenets of population dynamics. Is it possible that the sea star population has reached an unsustainable level, given the available food supply and other factors, and that widespread disease is a natural outcome? Will the decline of sea stars be followed by an overpopulation of mussels or other prey, leading to a decline in ecosystem diversity? How long will it take for the sea stars to recover? These are issues worthy of study in the coming years.

But I’m haunted by another prospect. Having seen our familiar starfish attacked by strange bacteria and turned to mush, what lies in store for other marine organisms? Could ecological stress and other mysterious pathogens lead to the devastating loss of other marine species? Who will be next?

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on the sea stars they see clinging to the Lofall pier. Photo by Meegan M. Reid

Peg Tillery, Linda Martin and Barb Erickson take notes on sea stars clinging to the Lofall pier.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid


Amusing Monday: To laugh about climate change

Monday, June 9th, 2014

I just realized the other day that I’ve never offered any jokes about climate change in my weekly “Amusing Monday” feature — although I did present a video clip from Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” a little more than a year ago. See Amusing Monday, Feb. 4, 2013.

Please don’t tell me it is inappropriate to laugh about tragedy. I mean, don’t even suggest that we can’t find humor in something that does not exist.

So I’ll raise the stakes this week by offering TWO Stephen Colbert videos plus a smattering of jokes from across the comedic landscape — which, by the way, is growing warmer by the year.

David Letterman: “Experts say this global warming is serious, and they are predicting now that by the year 2050, we will be out of party ice.”

Jay Leno: “They say if the warming trend continues, by 2015 Hillary Clinton might actually thaw out.”

Jimmy Fallon: “The White House released this massive report on the effects of climate change called the ‘National Climate Assessment,’ which beats the original title, ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here. (Fallon)

Jimmy Kimmel: “President Bush has a plan. He says that if we need to, we can lower the temperature dramatically just by switching from Fahrenheit to Celsius.”

Conan O’Brien:
“Yesterday, a group of scientists warned that because of global warming, sea levels will rise so much that parts of New Jersey will be under water. The bad news? Parts of New Jersey won’t be under water.”

The jokes above, except for Jimmy Fallon’s, were from “Late night jokes about global warming.”

Do you like cartoons? Take a look at this “Cartoon Gallery” from various artists compiled by Daniel Kurtzman. I’ve linked to the first; click the right arrow to see the full series.

Here are more jokes from lesser-known comedians:

“John Boehner says he’s not qualified to debate the science of climate change. And don’t even get him started on that wacky evolution thing.” — Warren Holstein

“Pat Sajak is correct when he says global warming alarmists are racists. They never talk about the plight of brown or black bears.” — Adam Wolf

“Al Gore has warned that cigarette smoking is a, ‘significant contributor to global warming.’ Making even more of an impact was the hot-air released by this comment.” — Chris Mata

“’I’m not paying to heat the outdoors.’ — some old guy who’s never heard of global warming” — Dan Dodge

“What if global warming IS a hoax and we make this world a better place … for nothing.” — Cold Lord Quietus


Earth Hour arrives this Saturday night

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

I admit it seems kind of quaint, but I look forward to turning out all the lights in my house once a year and sitting in the dark. It’s a time to contemplate all our marvels of technology while considering the needs of many people around the world.

Earth Hour is coming up on Saturday beginning at 8:30 p.m. The question of the hour: What can we each do to make things better?

If you get the chance, bring your family and/or friends together. You can go out to dinner or do other things before or after the designated hour, but for 60 minutes let your thoughts wander to other places in the world.

For me, that kind of reflection is enough for the moment, but the Earth Hour website talks about inspiring people to join environmental projects across the globe. By reviewing the website, Earth Hour can become a time of learning about worthwhile causes. Listen to Jason Priestly and others in the video player on this page.

If you want to make a difference, check out the five-step program for creating an Earth Hour event. Maybe think about doing something over the next year and sharing it on the Earth Hour website in 2015.

What I like about Earth Hour is that it unites people from around the world, if only for an hour. For those who wish to take a leadership role, Earth Hour is one place to start. As founder Andy Ridley says in a news release:

“What makes Earth Hour different is that it empowers people to take charge and use their power to make a difference. The movement inspires a mixture of collective and individual action, so anyone can do their part.”

Earth Hour begins each year in New Zealand, the first place the clock strikes 8:30 on the designated Saturday night.

Famous landmarks involved in the lights-out event include the Empire State Building, New York; Tower Bridge, London; Edinburgh Castle, Scotland; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin; the Eiffel Tower, Paris; the Kremlin, Moscow; and the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe to Asia.

See some photo highlights from previous years


Student project could lead to official state oyster

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Nobody was really talking about designating an official “Washington state oyster” until 14-year-old Claire Thompson came along. Now the state Senate has approved a bill, on a 47-1 vote, to list the Olympia oyster as the state’s official oyster.

Claire is an eighth grader at Olympia’s Nova School, which requires a yearlong project involving something that students care deeply about and can make a difference. Claire, who hopes to become a marine biologist or oceanographer, developed a sense of history for the once-prominent Olympia oyster, as we learned from her testimony before the Senate Governmental Operations Committee.

The full testimony on SB 6145 falls between 40:00 and 51:00 in the video on this page.

“Pollution near historic beds caused many closures of the fishery and rallied the oyster farmers to fight for the earliest pollution control regulations for clean water and cleanup,” Claire told the committee.

Ostrea lurida, the scientific name for the Olympia oyster, is the only native oyster to the region. The Pacific oyster, imported from Japan in the 1920s, makes up most of the production today, but the tiny Olympia is making a comeback as a unique delicacy with natural ties to the region.

Claire talked about ocean acidification, caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and its ongoing threat to the ecological health of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and other bays and estuaries.

“Ostrea lurida,” she said, “stands as a living symbol of Washington’s history, from the earliest Native Americans through the pioneers down through statehood to the present day, deserving protection as our native oyster. Please join me in fighting to protect not only our native oyster but our waters as well.”

Claire is the daughter of Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, who encouraged her to develop her project and speak before the Legislature.

Jim Jesernig of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association said he supports the bill, even though it came as a surprise to his group.

“We have been very pleased working with Claire,” Jesernig said. “It’s very interesting. From the industry, we did not see this. We were working on derelict vessels and a whole bunch of things going on. Claire has worked with folks in Willapa Harbor and the South Sound. We would like to support this in any way.”

If next approved by the house, the Olympia oyster will become the official state oyster, joining:

  • The orca, the official marine mammal;
  • The Olympic marmot, the official endemic mammal;
  • The willow goldfinch, the official bird;
  • The steelhead trout, the official fish; and
  • The common green darner dragonfly, the official insect.

By the way, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a nonprofit group, has been working for years to restore the Olympia oyster to Puget Sound. I first wrote about this issue in 1999 in a piece called “Native oyster making a comeback — with help.” A companion piece about the taste of the little oyster was titled “Olympia Oyster Gains Respect.” I also presented the tribal perspective in “Tribal Officials Welcome Oyster Restoration.”

Since then, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has helped rebuild native oyster populations in many bays, with one of the greatest successes in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Betsy Peabody, executive director, told me this morning that her group has great hopes for success in Dyes Inlet near Silverdale and in Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap. A new oyster hatchery in Manchester is expected to be in operation later this year.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a long-term restoration plan for the Olympia oyster with 19 areas listed for habitat restoration:

Drayton Harbor
Bellingham Bay (South) Shoreline, Portage Island, and Chuckanut Bay
Samish Bay
Padilla Bay
Fidalgo Bay
Similk Bay
Sequim Bay
Discovery Bay
Kilisut Harbor
Port Gamble Bay
Quilcene Bay
Union River/Big and Little Mission Creek(s) deltas
Liberty Bay and sub-inlets
Dyes Inlet and sub-inlets
Sinclair Inlet
Point Jefferson-Orchard Point complex of passages and inlets
Budd Inlet
Henderson Inlet
Harstine/Squaxin Islands complex of passages and inlets


Congress throwing away the keys to problem-solving

Friday, October 25th, 2013

I have been waiting for a prominent person to step forward and compare the politics surrounding climate change to what Congress just went through with the government shutdown and debt limit. Just in time, out of the woodwork, comes former Vice President Al Gore with his droll approach to the subject.

“Congress is pathetic right now, Gore said during an interview on “Take Part Live.” He continued:

“There are some awful good people in Congress trapped in a bad system. The truth is our democracy has been hacked; big money now calls the shots. That may sound like a radical statement, but less and less to people who have been paying attention to what’s been going on there.

(more…)


Amusing Monday: A clock for all things

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

You gotta love this clock. It’s style is reminiscent of the industrial age, but it reveals lots and lots of statistics about the modern world.

The opening page begins with an ongoing count of the world population, along with a tally of births and deaths. Click on any of these elements to reveal a breakdown in the population by age and location and causes of death. Find alternate population estimates. You can also reset the births and deaths tally from the beginning of the year, month, week, day or moment you push the button. (Flash is required to view the clock. See help.)


World Clock by Poodwaddle.com

Be sure to explore the other areas, listed in the left column, including environment, energy, food, economy, crime and smile. Under environment, you’ll find a prediction of global warming and sea-level rise. Click on the top element for a further explanation of the data.


World Clock by Poodwaddle.com

I want to thank Art Schick for calling my attention to this amazing clock. The clock was created by Poodwaddle. I can’t find much about the creators of the clock, but we know that Poodwaddle has been around about six years. To view other widgets of various types, go to Poodwaddle-All.


Amusing Monday: ‘Wind map’ may blow your mind

Monday, July 29th, 2013

When two computer experts visualized wind speed as a series of moving lines on a map, they created an animated art form that stirs the imagination with its mild hypnotic effects.

Click on the photo to check out the animated Wind Map.

Click on the map above to launch the animated Wind Map. / HINT.FM

Click on the still photo at right to call up the animation, known simply as “Wind Map.” The still image was shot from the animated real-time map at 11:40 this morning, showing winds across the U.S. By clicking on a map location, you can zoom in to see an area in more detail.

The project is a collaboration of Fenando Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, who are creating new ways to think and talk about data. Inputs for the map are taken from the National Weather Service’s National Digital Forecast Database, which is updated every three hours for wind speed.

Extreme wind events are captured in animations on their gallery page.

Their website, HINT.FM, includes a dozen different projects. Here’s how they describe their collaborative efforts:

“As technologists, we ask: Can visualization help people think collectively? Can visualization move beyond numbers into the realm of words and images?

“As artists, we seek the joy of revelation. Can visualization tell never-before-told stories? Can it uncover truths about color, memory, and sensuality?”

If you’d like to check out more traditional map depictions of wind speed, temperature, humidity, weather fronts, jet stream and many more weather features, go to wunderground.com.


Amusing Monday: encounters with polar ice

Monday, May 13th, 2013

When I hear about research taking place in Earth’s polar regions, I often wonder how our amazing ice-breaker ships make it through the ice. Do they just plow forward without hesitation, or do they worry about getting stuck?

Cassandra Brooks, a doctoral student at Stanford University, recently compiled an intriguing video showing time-lapse scenes of the Nathaniel B. Palmer on a cruise just completed in the Ross Sea of the Antarctic.

Cassandra’s narration provides a clear explanation of all kinds of ice encountered by the ice breaker, and she touches on the research itself.

“It was so beautiful,” Brooks told NBC News’ LiveScience. “And it was such a neat experience to be on this crazy boat that was just screaming through the ice.”

The video was part of a blogging project she undertook for National Geographic. The blog includes just seven entries, but each is an enjoyable science lesson for the reader. Take the entries in chronological order (bottom first) to get the full story of the adventure.

Before entering the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Brooks worked in both basic research and environmental education, according to the bio she wrote for her own website.

She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has published articles for both scientific and general audiences.

Casandra informs me that she hopes to write a final closing blog related to the recent cruise and will probably continue blogging about other projects.


Amusing Monday: Earth images on Earth Day

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Today is Earth Day and a good time to consider the Earth as a whole. Thanks to an impressive set of videos released by NASA in celebration of Earth Month, we can take a wide-angle view of the entire planet.

The first video serves to demonstrate the many images generated by NASA’s fleet of science satellites and aircraft. The space agency chose to accompany the video with music rather than narration, which ties together the images better than a detailed description. To delve more deeply into the science behind the images, visit NASA’s “Missions” page.

The second video shows the beauty of the Earth as seen from the International Space Station. The third is a blend of Earth images, computer animations and glimpses of the science behind it all. Although these videos are not amusing in a humorous way, I hope you’ll find them worth a look on Earth Day.

If you would like more NASA videos, still images and explanations, check out NASA’s “Earth Month 2013.”


Managers to review how fishing affects ecosystem

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The Pacific Fishery Management Council decided yesterday that it was time to consider, within its management plans, how large-scale fishing at certain times and places can create ripple effects in the food web.

Plan

The council adopted a new Fishery Ecosystem Plan to help manage West Coast fisheries, broadening the view of how fishing can shape the entire ocean community.

“It’s the beginning of a paradigm shift in fisheries management,” Paul Shively of Pew Charitable Trusts told Jeff Barnard, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

In the past, managers have tried to figure out what level of fishing can be sustainable. Now, in theory, they will also consider how a reduction in the numbers of certain fish can affect marine creatures that might want to eat them or be eaten by them.

“We’ve always managed our oceans on a species-by-species level,” Shively noted. “By developing an ecosystem plan we begin to look at how everything is connected in the ocean.”

Dan Wolford, chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, offered this observation in a news release (PDF 119 kb) from PFMC:

“We now enter into a new era of more sophisticated fishery management. We heard strong public testimony calling for more protection for unmanaged forage fish, and the council’s adoption of this motion today formalizes the council taking this up this as a fishery management action.”

Jane Lubchenco, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the agency has been talking about the ecosystem-based approach since the 2006 renewal of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

“Taking an ecosystem approach to fisheries management is widely viewed as an enlightened approach to fishery management, because it recognizes that the target species of interest exists within a broader ecosystem,” she said in Barnard’s piece. She is now a visiting professor at Stanford University,

The Fishery Ecosystem Plan does not replace existing management plans, including those for salmon, groundfish, highly migratory species or coastal pelagic species. But it does call for the consideration of more factors before making management decisions, and it mandates an annual “State of the Ecosystem” report.

One initiative connected to the plan calls for the prohibition of targeted fishing for unmanaged forage fish until the impacts are better known. Eight other initiatives will discuss how harvest affects stocks, bycatch, habitat, fisheries safety, fisheries jobs, response to climate change, socioeconomics, and other factors.

For extra reading: I found the discussions about managing krill in the Antarctic to be revealing. See “License to Krill: A Story About Ecosystem-Based Management” on NOAA’s website. It includes this tidbit:

“When fishing reduces the population of one species, there are ripple effects throughout the marine food chain. For instance, if the human species takes more krill out of the ecosystem, the populations of other animals that prey on krill might decline.

“But it’s not just a question of how much krill we take. Where and when we take it are also important. Penguin chicks need to find food when they fledge at the end of their first summer. For certain species of seals, which carry their pregnancies through winter, wintertime forage is critical. By identifying where and when these critical periods occur, scientists can advise fishery managers on how best to reduce the impacts of fishing on the other species we care about.”

I discussed the ecosystem plan briefly in the latest installment of a series of stories dealing with Puget Sound’s ecosystem and indicators chosen by the Puget Sound Partnership. We call it “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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