Category Archives: Research

Puget Sound and other estuaries are facing the federal chopping block

Federal funding to restore Puget Sound and other large U.S. estuaries would be slashed by more than 90 percent under a preliminary budget proposal coming from President Trump’s administration.

Funding for Puget Sound restoration would be cut by 93 percent, from the current budget of $28 million to just $2 million, according to figures cited by the Portland Oregonian and apparently circulated by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Here’s the list.

The Great Lakes, which received a big boost in spending to $300 million in the current biennium, would be hammered down to $10 million. Chesapeake Bay, currently at $73 million, would be reduced to $5 million.

Much of this money goes for habitat protection and restoration, the kind of effort that seems to be kicked to the bottom of the priority list, at least in these early budget figures. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appears to be focusing on upgrading water infrastructure, cleaning up toxic sites and reducing air and water pollution, although everything is cut deeply and details remain murky.

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Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

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Amusing Monday: Entertaining videos don’t show real holograms

An amusing video that shows a young family experiencing close-up encounters with killer whales, a polar bear and several penguins has been making the rounds on social media. The technology has been described as a hologram by many people posting and reposting the video, the first on this page.

Frankly, I was amazed at first, believing that people were really up close and personal with a 3D image in a shopping mall. The animals, which I assumed were projected for all to see, appeared so real that it was no wonder that people in the video were reaching out to touch them. Unfortunately, that’s not what we are seeing, according to observers.

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Crab Team training will foster the upcoming hunt for green crab invaders

A European green crab invasion may be taking place in Puget Sound, and Washington Sea Grant intends to enhance its Crab Team this summer with more volunteers looking in more places than ever before.

The second European green crab identified in Puget Sound was found in Padilla Bay, where three others were later trapped.
Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve

Training is about to get underway, and anyone with an interest in furthering science while being exposed to the wonders of nature may participate. It’s not always good weather, but I’ve been inspired by the camaraderie I’ve witnessed among dedicated volunteers.

The work involves going out to one or more selected sites each month from April into September with a team of two to four other volunteers. It is helpful to have folks who can carry the crab traps, plastic bins and other equipment. For details, check out the Washington Sea Grant website.

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Seals and sea lions may be undercutting chinook and orca populations

Seals and sea lions can no longer be ignored in the effort to recover our threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon or our endangered killer whales.

A new study shows that seals and sea lions are eating about 1.4 million pounds of Puget Sound chinook each year — about nine times more than they were eating in 1970, according to the report. Please read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, also published in an abridged version in the Kitsap Sun.

Harbor seals rest on the breakwater at Poulsbo Marina. // Photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

Seals and sea lions in Puget Sound get the first chance to catch the chinook as they leave the streams and head out to the ocean. Since they are eaten at a very young age, these small chinook, called “smolts,” never grow into adults; they never become available for killer whales or humans.

Based on rough estimates, as many as one in five of these young fish are getting eaten on their way out of Puget Sound. If they were to survive the seals and sea lions and one factors in the remaining mortality rate, these fish could translate into an average of 162,000 adult chinook each year. That’s twice the number eaten by killer whales and roughly six times as many as caught in Puget Sound by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers combined, according to the study.

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Amusing Monday: Playing with water in the weightlessness of space

Since the beginning of the manned space program, astronauts have been playing with water in microgravity conditions. The result has been a large assortment of videos demonstrating the unique and amusing properties of water.

In the first video on this page, Chris Hadfield, an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency demonstrates what happens aboard the International Space Station when you ring out a soaked wash cloth in the weightlessness of space.

The experiment was suggested by students Kendra Lemke and Meredith Faulkner of Lockview High School in Fall River, Nova Scotia. It was posted on YouTube in 2013.

The video shows that the surface tension of water is great enough that the water keeps clinging when Hadfield rings out the cloth. If you watch closely, however, you can see a few droplets fly off when he starts to ring out the cloth.

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Invasive oyster drills react differently to predators than natives

Invasive saltwater snails, including dreaded oyster drills, seem to be far more leery of predators than native snails under certain conditions, according to a new study by Emily Grason, whose research earned her a doctoral degree from the University of Washington.

An invasive Atlantic oyster drill feeds on a young Pacific oyster. // Photo: Emily Grason

Why non-native snails in Puget Sound would run and hide while native species stand their ground remains an open question, but the difference in behavior might provide an opportunity to better control the invasive species.

Of course, snails don’t actually run, but I was surprised to learn that they can move quite rapidly to find hiding places when they believe they are under attack.

Like many marine animals, snails use chemical clues to figure out what is happening in their environment. For her experiments, Emily created a flow-through system with two plastic shoeboxes. Chemical clues were provided in the upstream bin, while the reaction of the snails was observed in the downstream bin.

The most dramatic difference between native and non-native snails seemed to be when ground-up snails were deposited in the upstream bin, simulating a chemical release caused by a crab or other predator breaking open snail shells and consuming the tender morsels inside.

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Federal Action Plan for Puget Sound released as Trump enters office

Two days before Donald Trump became president, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force released a draft of the federal action plan for the recovery of Puget Sound.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

The Trump transition raises uncertainty about the future of this plan, but at least the incoming administration has a document to work with, as described by Steve Kopecky of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. (See Water Ways, Dec. 22.)

Speaking last month before the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, Kopecky acknowledged that the plan would go through many changes over time, with or without a new president.

“That being said, the first one is probably the most powerful,” he said. “It is the model that new folks are going to use, so we’re trying to make sure that we have a good solid foundation model before we all collectively go out the door.”

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Amusing Monday: Snowflakes frozen in a world of their own

They say every snowflake is different. That may be hard to believe until you realize that snowflakes are really quite large on the molecular scale and that snowflakes come in various shapes and sizes, created under an enormous number of varying conditions.

In fact, most snowflakes are so different from one another that the effort to categorize their shapes has never been completely successful. In 2013, one research group came out with a new classification of 121 different types of snow crystals, ice crystals and solid precipitation. Check out the paper in Atmospheric Research.

But what really got me started on this topic was the beauty of snowflakes and wondering how they form. I offered a view of some stunning still photos in Water Ways in 2014. This time, I thought we could take a look at snowflake formation.

I really like the first video on this page, complete with music. I didn’t realize until later that the video does not show snowflake formation at all. Rather it shows the sublimation of snowflakes (their disappearance) played in reverse.

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Stream ‘bugs’ will help guide funding for future stream restoration

One of the goals established by the Puget Sound Partnership is to improve freshwater quality in 30 streams throughout the region, as measured by the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity, or B-IBI.

Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. Photo: C. Dunagan
Benthic invertebrates range in size from those easily seen with the naked eye to those that cannot be spotted without the use of a microscope. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Simply described, B-IBI is a numerical measure of stream health as determined by the number and type of bottom-dwelling creatures that live in a stream. My latest article published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound describes in some detail how this index works. Here’s the basic idea:

“High-scoring streams tend to have a large variety of ‘bugs,’ as researchers often call them, lumping together the benthic species. Extra points are given for species that cannot survive without clean, cool water. On the other hand, low-scoring streams are generally dominated by a few species able to survive under the worst conditions.”

Because benthic invertebrates have evolved over time with salmon and other fish, many of these important “bugs” are primary prey for the fish that we value highly. Said another way, “healthy” streams — as measured by B-IBI — tend to be those that are not only cool and clean but also very good habitats for salmon.

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