Category Archives: Research

Are we at a crossroads in the green crab invasion on Dungeness Spit?

State biologists are holding out hope that the European green crab invasion at Dungeness Spit can be contained. We may now be going through a critical period, which could result in a permanent infestation or possibly the final throes of the invasion.

Green crabs, an invasive species known to displace native species and cause economic devastation to shellfish growers, were first discovered on April 12 in a marshy area on Graveyard Spit, which juts off from the larger Dungeness Spit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The total number of green crabs caught in an ongoing intensive trapping program has reached 76. The weekly numbers have been declining, as shown in a chart on this page. That could be a good sign, but biologists are quite reserved in their predictions.

“The numbers are tapering off,” said Allen Pleus, coordinator of the state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program, “but in my view the numbers are still too high. Eradication would take several weeks of zero. At this point, our main objective is to bring down the population to a point where spawning would not be successful.”

So far, all of the crabs caught are young and small — about 1 to 2.5 inches across their backs. This means that they have not been in the area for long, probably arriving on last year’s currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Another good sign is that no other crabs have been caught elsewhere along the Strait, although officials acknowledge that they would like to deploy more traps to capture any early invaders. Also, I am happy to report that no new crabs have been captured this year in Padilla Bay or on San Juan Island, where the state’s first confirmed green crab invasion took place last year. See Water Ways, Sept. 24, 2016.

Update: I’ve been informed that one green crab was caught in April in Padilla Bay where others were caught last year.

The decline in captures at Dungeness Spit may be a sign that some of the crabs have entered their reproductive phase, a period when they don’t eat and so are not attracted to the baited traps. Males and females get together to mate after molting, a phase of development in which they shed their exoskeletons. The trapping effort has reduced the crab numbers and made it more difficult for reproductive males and females to find each other, but each female can produce hundreds of thousands of eggs — so even one successful mating could expand the invasion.

This small male crab is one of the 76 European green crabs caught in traps at Dungeness Spit. // Photo: Allen Pleus

Because the baited traps may not work at this time, officials are experimenting with substrate traps, which are pieces of plastic pipe ranging in size from a half-inch to 2 inches, Allen told me. Young crabs may seek shelter in the tubes. So far, no crabs have been captured that way.

Another idea yet to be tried is baiting traps with pheromones, which are sexual attractants that lure crabs looking for a mate. Allen said he also would like to experiment with electrical stimulation, in which an electrical current is discharged in the muddy substrate to drive crabs out of their burrows. With proper control, no permanent harm comes to them or other creatures in the vicinity, Allen said.

When it comes to controlling future crab invasions in Puget Sound, experts would like to know where the crab larvae are coming from. The leading suspect is a population of green crabs that appear to have settled into Sooke Inlet, just west of Victoria on Vancouver Island in Canada. It is also possible that the larvae drifted in from coastal waters in British Columbia, Washington or even Oregon or California. Experts hope that genetic tests of green crabs from the various locations can be used to identify where the crabs on Dungeness Spit originated.

Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant coordinates a group of volunteers who monitor traps placed throughout Puget Sound with a goal of stopping the next invasion.

“The presence of green crab in Dungeness Bay, though unfortunate, offers a unique opportunity to test how effective the EDRR (Early Detection-Rapid Response) model is for intervening in a potential green crab invasion,” Emily wrote yesterday in a blog post on the Crab Team website.

“Generally speaking, invasive species are rarely noticed in a new spot until they have already become too abundant to eradicate,” she said. “Though 76 crabs at Dungeness Spit is more than we would ever like to see, the population hasn’t yet reached the numbers that are seen in areas of greatest infestation. And they are, as far as we know, still confined to a relatively small location….

“Preventing and managing biological invasions is similar to planning for a wild fire season: The best thing to do is prevent either invasions or wildfires from taking hold in the first place, but we know that some will occur despite our best efforts. It’s difficult to forecast exactly where, when or how severe they will be when they do pop up, and yet it’s imperative to respond quickly and aggressively as soon as they are detected.”

Emily added that we are fortunate in this area to have the tremendous support of volunteers, partners and beachgoers, all involved in the effort to prevent a permanent invasion of green crabs. Staff and volunteers at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge have been instrumental in placing and tending the traps placed in that area.

Amusing Monday: Underwater mysteries of the national parks

Mysterious underwater areas can be found in numerous national parks and national monuments throughout the United States. The National Park Service operates a special division, the Submerged Resources Center, to explore some of the mysteries.

To share its underwater exploration and preservation efforts, the Park Service has created seven films in partnership with CuriosityStream, a documentary production and distribution company. Though longer than most videos featured in “Amusing Monday,” I believe the science and history revealed in these fascinating films are well worth the time.

The Submerged Resources Center, which has been in existence more than 30 years, has been recognized as a leader in documenting, interpreting and preserving underwater resources. As you will see in the films, the research teams use some of the most advanced underwater technologies. Their mission is to support the National Park Service’s preservation mandate and to enhance public appreciation, access and protection of these resources. Areas of focus include archeology, marine survey, underwater imaging and diving.

I have embedded three videos on this page, but I’m providing the full list here, with links, also accessible on the National Park Service’s website called “Underwater Wonders of the National Parks.”

Devil’s Hole: This unique underwater cave can be found in Death Valley National Park on the border between California and Nevada northwest of Las Vegas. The film features a unique species of fish called the pupfish, which are among the most endangered species in the world. Assessing and protecting these fish is a major responsibility of the Park Service. Another good story with photos and video was featured in The Desert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs, Calif.

Montezuma Well: Swirling sands at the bottom of this lake create spooky conditions for divers who cannot find the bottom and often find themselves sucked into a kind of quicksand. The “well” can be found within Montezuma Castle National Monument south of Flagstaff, Ariz. Few creatures can survive in the waters rich in carbon dioxide and arsenic and fed by pressurized water vents. But divers are monitoring the populations and interactions among four species found there: diatoms, amphipods, snails, non-blood-sucking leaches and water scorpions.

USS Arizona, Part 1: The USS Arizona, which sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor, is a national memorial to the 1,177 sailors who went down with the ship. The National Park Service is responsible for monitoring conditions — including sea life — in and around the Arizona.

USS Arizona, Part 2: The second video on the Arizona Memorial features more about the history of the ship and artifacts still being discovered. Divers are serious about their solemn roles. For example, World War II survivors of the attack may choose to be reunited with their shipmates, so urns with their remains are moved into a special place aboard the sunken battleship.

Yellowstone Lake: Thermal vents and impressive geothermal spires are unique to the freshwater habitat of Yellowstone Lake, which lies in the center of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. A major concern is the survival of the lake’s native cutthroat trout, which are being consumed by the voracious lake trout, an invasive species. Mapping the lake’s bottom to locate the lake trout’s spawning grounds is one idea to help contain the problem.

Lake Mead: The first national recreation area in the United States, Lake Mead, which is east of Las Vegas, was formed by the construction of Hoover Dam in an area known for its military secrets, including Area 51. In 1948, a B-29 bomber crashed and sank in the lake while conducting research into a new navigational concept, which eventually became incorporated into guidance missile systems. The aluminum aircraft is well preserved on the bottom of the lake, although it is now encrusted with invasive quagga mussels, which spread too fast for divers to keep track of them.

Buck Island: An amazingly productive ecosystem can be found within Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands of the Caribbean. Experts monitoring the reef’s conditions must experience mixed emotions, as they document the amazing sea life as well as “bleaching” of the coral reef, portions of which are dying from disease. Divers have been able to save some of the corals by chiseling away the infected areas. The National Park Service also documents the history of the slave trade as it explores for artifacts from more than 100 slave ships that sank in the Virgin Islands — including at least two near Buck Island.

Amusing Monday: Videos by students try to convince climate skeptics

“How do you convince a climate-change skeptic?” That’s the question posed to high-school film producers in a contest sponsored by the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

I find it interesting that the challenge to create a two-minute video does not include a reason that climate-change skeptics might need convincing. No doubt this was intentional, giving young filmmakers more leeway to be creative. It may result from a recognition that so-called skeptics are not all of one mind when it comes to talking about climate change.

In fact, I’ve observed varying points of view among people who disagree with widely held findings among climate scientists. Consider these types of skeptics:

  • First, there are some people who do not believe that the scientific method could ever produce meaningful answers about climate change.
  • Others accept the methods of science, but they believe the evidence actually shows that the climate is not warming and may even be cooling.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that the climate is warming, but they believe that this is a natural phenomenon and that human-produced greenhouse gases have nothing to do with it.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that climate is warming and that humans are having an effect, but they believe that climatologists have miscalculated the rate of warming.
  • Finally, there are those in the policy realm who admit that they don’t know what is causing climate change, but they believe that the costs of addressing the problem are too great or that government should not be involved.

So I was interested to see how high school filmmakers would address the skeptics of climate change. The winner, Tiamo Minard of Roosevelt High School, simply laid out the facts, as they are best known by climate scientists.

Second place went to a team from Lynwood High School, whose approach was highly personal, showing how people’s everyday actions contribute to climate change. The team included Saron Almaw, Hani Ghebrehiwet, Brittaney Hong, Kristen Nguyen and Jasmine Pel.

Third-place winner, Hazel Camer of Lynnwood High School, simply pounded home the fact that climate change is real and that the consequences for the human race could be severe. One man on the video pooh-poohed the notion that climate change is a liberal conspiracy. Then, surprisingly, the next person on the video is U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat who is not likely to convince many skeptics.

I found the winning videos entertaining and at times amusing, and I can’t argue with their arguments. But I doubt that they will convince any of the climate-skeptic types that I outlined above. This was truly a difficult challenge, yet one that seems worthwhile. Even professional media experts have trouble addressing this issue, although humor may be helpful. See, for example, the blog post, “Ontario employs humor in climate discussion,” Water Ways, May 15, or “‘Don’t fret,’ says new celebrity video for climate deniers,” Water Ways, Dec. 14, 2015.

Other finalists:

Judging the contest were Laura Jean Cronin, producer/director of award-winning short films currently involved with B47 studios in Seattle; Melanie Harrison Okoro, water quality specialist and the aquatic invasive species coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Region; Cody Permenter, social media manager for Grist, an online news magazine; and Ethan Steinman, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who owns Seattle-based production company Daltonic Films.

A report on last year’s contest can be found on Water Ways, June 27, 2016. It is great to see the work of local filmmakers, and I hope the contest continues.

Facing challenges that could save chinook salmon from extinction

Nineteen years ago this month, then-Governor Gary Locke made a bold declaration about salmon that would echo through time: “Extinction is not an option.”

Juvenile chinook salmon depend on high-quality habitat for their survival.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a call to action that would lead to major protection and restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound. Still, today, chinook salmon have not experienced a population rebound, as many people had hoped. The failure to thrive has been a disappointment to many, yet we are often reminded that it took 150 years to push salmon to the brink of extinction and it will not be easy to ensure their future.

Last week, concerns about the survival of chinook salmon prompted a coalition of Puget Sound tribes to propose a series of “bold actions,” as I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, later reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” stated salmon expert Dave Herrera, speaking for the tribes. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”

The bold actions, spelled out in a three-page proposal (PDF 380 kb), include greater controls on the use of land and water, among other things. I won’t describe the details, which you can read in the memo. The ideas were prompted by a new Chinook Salmon Implementation Strategy, designed to accelerate an increase in the Puget Sound chinook population.

The tribes complained that the proposed strategy, as drafted, mostly mimicked the 10-year-old Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. That plan has made limited progress in restoring wild salmon runs, despite millions of dollars spent to protect and restore habitat while limiting fishing and controlling hatchery production.

In his speech of June 1998, Gov. Locke worried about the risk of extinction for these migratory fish, which are an economic asset as well as a celebrated symbol of the Northwest.

Former Gov. Gary Locke

“In several Puget Sound watersheds, our wild salmon have less than a decade to live, unless we act now,” Locke said in 1998. “And in many more rivers and streams, if the status quo continues, our wild salmon will be gone before my daughter Emily graduates from high school. So we just don’t have any time to waste. For better or for worse, we are about to make history.”

Locke’s speech was indeed historic, as he launched an unprecedented endeavor to rebuild salmon runs at great financial cost. The governor seemed to understand the challenge, as I noted at the time in my coverage of the speech before more than 100 county officials in Tacoma:

“Locke appears to be glancing over his shoulder, ready to duck for cover, as he talks about the financial and political commitments required to keep salmon from disappearing in various parts of the state,” I wrote.

“We need to wake up every morning ready to challenge the status quo,” Locke said, adding that basic changes are needed in the way businesses and average citizens use their land and water resources.

“There is a risk,” Locke said, “in just delivering that message, let alone acting on it.”

The following year, the Washington Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to prioritize state and federal funding for salmon recovery. And the next governor, Chris Gregoire, ushered in an even greater ecosystem-recovery effort under guidance of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Wetlands are critical habitat for salmon.
Photo: Eric Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey

Today, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened without these salmon- and ecosystem-recovery efforts. Would the salmon be gone, as Locke predicted? It’s hard to say, but researchers have learned a great deal about what salmon need to survive, and the money is being better targeted toward those needs. As a result, it is understandable why some people are both disappointed with the past and hopeful for the future.

One of the great challenges facing public officials today is to find ways for local governments to truly live up to the standard of “no net loss” of ecological function — a standard required by the state’s Growth Management Act. When new developments affect “critical areas” — such as fish and wildlife habitat — they must include vegetated buffers and stormwater controls to minimize the damage. Then they must enhance degraded habitat — either on-site or off-site — to make up for losses that cannot be avoided.

I used to believe that this goal was unachievable, and I have questioned many state experts about it. How can any developer construct a commercial or residential development and walk away with no net loss of habitat function? The answer is to include a serious restoration component.

One example is the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Program, which I wrote about last month in Water Ways (May 19). This program was started on a large scale to mitigate for construction at the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor, but it also works on a small scale, as I mentioned in that blog post.

When an older site is redeveloped, there may be no ecological loss, since the damage was done in the past. But when a developer builds in a new location, the local government is charged with measuring the loss, coming to terms for mitigation and making sure the mitigation is carried out. The concept of “no net loss” works only if the mitigation is permanent — another major challenge in many areas.

If no net loss can be achieved while major restoration efforts continue, we will see a net increase in salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region, and that will be a cause of celebration. One success has been in the program Floodplains by Design, which improves critical off-channel habitat for salmon while reducing flooding problems for nearby residents. Checkout the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the blog post in Water Ways, April 15.

Washington State Department of Commerce, which oversees the Growth Management Act, is in the process of updating its Critical Areas Assistance Handbook (PDF 6 mb), which serves as guidance for local regulations. New information about how to protect habitat for all life stages of salmon will be a key addition to a revised version, soon to be released for public review. See the CAO page on the Department of Commerce website.

Local governments in every part of the state must become part of the discussion if we expect them to carry out the mandate of protecting habitat for salmon. Money for planning and regulatory enforcement must be worked out. One idea I’ve heard is a regional approach that involves a group of compliance officials working to enforce the rules for multiple counties and cities.

No doubt the salmon-recovery effort must be improved. Challenges remain for issues including fishing, predation by marine mammals and climate change. But if the protection and restoration of salmon habitat can outpace unmitigated damage from development, we may be justified in believing that extinction is not an option.

Amusing Monday: Odd and colorful species make top-10 list for ’17

A newly named stingray that lives in freshwater has joined an omnivorous rat and a couple of leggy wormlike creatures as part of the Top-10 New Species for 2017.

Sulawesi root rat
Photo: Kevin Rowe, Museums Victoria

The top-ten list, compiled by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) at the State University of New York, also includes a tiny spider found in India, a katydid discovered in Malaysia and a spiny ant from Papua New Guinea. Two interesting plants also made the list.

It’s often amusing to learn how various critters are first discovered and ultimately how they are named — sometimes for fictional characters with similar characteristics.

ESF President Quentin Wheeler, who founded the International Institute for Species Exploration, said nearly 200,000 new species have been discovered since the top-10 list was started a decade ago.

“This would be nothing but good news were it not for the biodiversity crisis and the fact that we’re losing species faster than we’re discovering them,” he said. “The rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than in prehistory. Unless we accelerate species exploration, we risk never knowing millions of species or learning the amazing and useful things they can teach us.”

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Environmental efforts, including Puget Sound, hanging in the balance

I must admit that I have an uneasy curiosity to see how Congress will manage programs that protect human health and the environment now that Republican legislators are in control of both the House and Senate with no concerns about a budget veto.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia

Most environmental laws and programs are the result of hard-fought compromise between Democrats and Republicans who somehow agreed on ideas to make the world a safer place for people and wildlife. Do Republican members of Congress really want to back away from those advances? Do they want to explain to their constituents why clean air, clean water and safe food are not as important as they once were?

I was fascinated to read that Republican senators and representatives in the Great Lakes states could be a key to saving federal funding for Chesapeake Bay — and, by the same token, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and other major restoration projects.

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Puget Sound Partnership improves, but some changes still needed

Puget Sound Partnership, created by the Legislature to coordinate protection and restoration of Puget Sound, has improved its operations over the past four years, according to a state audit report, which also makes recommendations for further improvements.

One area where the Partnership is not meeting its legal mandate is to identify partner organizations — including state agencies and county governments — that are not living up to their responsibilities under the Puget Sound Action Agenda, which guides the overall restoration effort.

Likewise, the Partnership has not been calling out partners that have made outstanding progress in their efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound, according to the audit, which was approved last week by state legislators who make up the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC.

The video below shows the portion of the JLARC meeting addressing the audit report on the Puget Sound Partnership.

The one legal deficiency involves the old carrot-and-stick approach, shaming those who are failing to protect Puget Sound while praising those doing a bang-up job. One concern I’ve heard is that shaming may be counter-productive, since the Partnership has no legal authority to force anybody to do anything. Nevertheless, the approach is required by state law.

The three primary recommendations coming out of the audit:

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Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

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Protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem involves urban planning

I often write about Puget Sound restoration, sometimes forgetting to include the word “protection.” It really should be “Puget Sound protection and restoration” — with protection getting the first billing and the highest priority in our thinking.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

Protection isn’t very exciting — not like restoring hundreds of acres of degraded estuaries, floodplains and wetlands. Of course, restoration is absolutely necessary to gain back lost habitat, but the immediate result is never as good as habitat that avoided damage in the first place. Even restored habitat generally needs to be protected for a long time before it functions as well as an undisturbed site.

These are issues I have been pondering as I wrote the latest story in a series about Implementation Strategies — a focused effort to make a measurable improvement in the Puget Sound ecosystem. For details, check out the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

If we could freeze everything in place, then habitat restoration would help rebuild the fish and wildlife populations that require special conditions. But we cannot stop time, and we are told that 1.5 million more people will soon be living in the Puget Sound region.

Where can all these future people find homes without further degrading the environment? Will they choose to live in places that minimize the ecological damage or will it even matter to them? Needless to say, this remains an open-ended question — a question that is both public and very personal, touching on issues of freedom and property rights.

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New game lets you travel with wacky steelhead as they try to survive

In a new game open to everyone, 48 colorful cartoon fish will soon follow the wandering paths of real-life steelhead that have been tracked during their migration through Puget Sound.

Just like their counterparts in the real world, some of the young steelhead in the game will survive the trip from South Puget Sound or southern Hood Canal — but many will not. The game’s basic tenet is to choose a fish that you feel will be lucky or cunning enough to make it through a gauntlet of hazards from predators to disease. You then watch and learn about the needs and threats to salmon and steelhead as the game progresses over 12 days, beginning May 8.

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