Category Archives: Research

Amusing Monday: Strange creatures and other ocean phenomena

Once in a while, a video shows up featuring some amazing phenomena not well known by most people. This is the case with a YouTube video by Mind Warehouse called “Ten Ocean Phenomena You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”

I’ve featured several of the phenomena you’ll see in this video from my “Amusing Monday” series, but I admit that I did not know that some of these things even exist — and at least one photo appears to be a hoax that fooled the producers of the video on this page.

I’ve searched out a little more about each of the phenomena with links if you would like to learn more about any of these strange goings on.

Giant pyrosome

Thousands of self-cloned animals called tunicates occasionally come together to form a giant hollow tube that may grow to 60 feet long, according to Oceana’s Ocean Animal Encyclopedia. Giant pyrosomes are bioluminescent, producing their own light.

Because the tunicates can reproduce by cloning, the colony can regenerate its damaged parts to keep the tube intact. The tunicates that form pyrosomes are related to those found in the Salish Sea. Check out Emerald Diving’s tunicates page.

Megan Garber has written a story for The Atlantic, accompanied by a video, called “12 reasons pyrosomes are my new favorite terrifying sea creatures.”

Circles on the ocean bed

In 1995, divers discovered what looked like strange “crop circles” like those reported in farm fields, but these were on the ocean bottom near Japan. Other circles were found, but it took a decade before it was determined that male pufferfish make the circles as part of a mating ritual.

“When the circles are finished, females come to inspect them,” according to an article in LiveScience by Douglas Main. “If they like what they see, they reproduce with the males, said Hiroshi Kawase, the curator of the Coastal Branch of Natural History Museum and Institute in Chiba, Japan. But nobody knows exactly what the females are looking for in these circles or what traits they find desirable, Kawase told LiveScience.”

Striped icebergs

Most icebergs are white, but all sorts of blue-striped icebergs can be found in nature. They are the result of water filling a crevice and freezing so fast that no bubbles form. Green stripes form when algae-rich water freezes. Brown, yellow and black are the result of sediments being picked up by the water before it freezes. See undocumented photos and story by Mihai Andrei in ZME Science.

Red tide

Red tides can be found all over the world. Although “red tide” is a term often associated with poisonous plankton, many of the orange and red tides do not produce toxins harmful to people or marine life.

In Puget Sound, blooms of a dinoflagellate called Noctiluca sometimes create what appear to be works of art, as I described in Water Ways in June of 2013. Eyes Over Puget Sound, a program that monitors surface conditions, frequently presents pictures of colorful algae blooms, including a new edition published this morning.

Whirlpool

One of the strongest whirlpools in the world is at Saltstraumen, a fjord in Norway where a massive exchange of water rushes through an opening just 500 feet wide. Review the video “Deepest Hole in the Ocean.”

Brinicle

When salt-rich water streams into the sea, it can form an underwater finger of ice called a brinicle, sometimes referred to as “the ice finger of death.” The super-cooled briny water is colder than the surrounding sea, so the stream reaches out and freezes as it goes. See the article by Douglas Main in LiveScience or check out the blog post in Water Ways from November 2011.

Killer wave

When big waves come together at sea, the result is often a giant wave large enough to wreck an ocean-going ship or rush to shore with tremendous force. In January of this year, a killer wave — also known as a rogue wave — was recorded along the Pacific Coast in Grays Harbor County at a stream called Joe Creek. See Q-13 TV video “Rogue Wave …”

Frost flowers

When the air is considerably colder than a calm sea or lake, ice crystal can be extruded above the surface to form structures that resemble flowers. This occurs when water vapor sublimes from thin surface ice into the air without passing through the liquid phase. The warm moist air at the surface of the ice rises and quickly freezes in the colder air above.

Conditions leading to frost flowers often occur in the polar regions as new sea ice forms. Once the ice grows a little thicker, the surface cools down and the temperature difference between the ice and atmosphere are too close for the vapor to rise and then freeze.

Robert Krulwich, who hosted a science show for National Public Radio, discussed the phenomenon from the point of view of Jeff Bowman, a University of Washington graduate student in 2009 when he spotted frost flowers on his way back from an expedition to the Arctic.

Baltic and North sea meeting point

In the Mind Warehouse video, the narrator discusses a bunch of pictures purportedly showing the meeting point of the Baltic and North seas. I have been unable to track down all these photos or confirm that any of them were taken at the convergence zone of the Baltic and North seas.

One of the photos appears to have been taken in Alaska, showing the melt water from a glacier converging with ocean water. As in Puget Sound, the lower-density freshwater tends to form a layer over the salty seawater. See Kent Smith’s photo, taken from a cruise ship, and a story about research by the U.S. Geological Survey taken in the Gulf of Alaska.

It’s amusing to see all the myth-versus-fact posts on various Internet sites regarding the question of whether waters from the Baltic Sea actually mix with waters from the North Sea. (Search for “Baltic and North sea mixing.”) I gave up trying to find credible photos, but there exists an actual phenomenon regarding the mixing of the two seas. Wikipedia provides this explanation:

“The Baltic Sea flows out through the Danish straits; however, the flow is complex. A surface layer of brackish water discharges 940 km3 (230 cu mi) per year into the North Sea. Due to the difference in salinity, by salinity permeation principle, a sub-surface layer of more saline water moving in the opposite direction brings in 475 km3 (114 cu mi) per year. It mixes very slowly with the upper waters, resulting in a salinity gradient from top to bottom, with most of the salt water remaining below 40 to 70 m (130 to 230 ft) deep. The general circulation is anti-clockwise: northwards along its eastern boundary, and south along the western one.”

Bioluminescence

Living organisms can be seen to glow during a chemical reaction that involves a light-emitting pigment and an enzyme that serves as a catalyst for the reaction. Depending on the species, bioluminescence may be used to escape from prey, attract prey or signal for a mate. Sometimes researchers can’t tell why an animal has the ability to light up. One of the best write-ups I’ve seen is in Wikipedia.

Last fall, I featured in “Amusing Monday” a tiny creature called a sea sapphire that flashes brilliant hues of green, blue and purple then seems to disappear before your eyes. The organism is a copepod that is able to shift its plates to adjust the wavelength of light reflected from crystals underneath. When the reflected light is shifted far enough into the ultraviolet, the little animals nearly disappear.

Edith Widder, a specialist in bioluminescence, gives a fascinating TED talk on the subject in 2011. You can watch the video called “The Weird, Wonderful World of Bioluminescence,” in which she brings some glowing organisms to the stage.

Finding answers for dangerous decline of Puget Sound steelhead

Harbor seals have become prime suspects in the deaths of millions of young steelhead trout that die each year in Puget Sound, but the seals may not be working alone.

Trends

Disease and/or various environmental factors could play a part, perhaps weakening the young steelhead as they begin their migratory journey from the streams of Puget Sound out to the open ocean. Something similar is happening to steelhead on the Canadian side of the border in the Salish Sea.

More than 50 research projects are underway in Puget Sound and Georgia Strait to figure out why salmon runs are declining — and steelhead are a major focus of the effort. Unlike most migratory salmon, steelhead don’t hang around long in estuaries that can complicate the mortality investigation for some species.

The steelhead initiative was launched by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound Partnership with funding from the Legislature. The steelhead work is part of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is halfway through its five-year term, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings, which coordinates the effort in the U.S. The larger project involves at least 60 organizations, including state and federal agencies, Indian tribes and universities.

A new report on research findings for steelhead (PDF 9.8 mb) describes the most significant results to date for our official state fish, which was listed as “threatened” in 2007. While steelhead populations on the Washington Coast and Columbia River have rebounded somewhat since their lowest numbers in the 1980s, steelhead in the Salish Sea remain at historical lows — perhaps 10 percent of their previous average.

“Because steelhead are bigger and move fast through the system, they are easier to study (than other salmon species),” Michael told me. “It has been a lot easier to feel confident about what you are finding.”

Abundance

Steelhead can be imbedded with tiny acoustic transmitters, which allow them to be tracked by acoustic receivers along their migration routes to the ocean. It appears that the tagged fish survive their freshwater journey fairly well, but many soon disappear once they reach Puget Sound. The longer they travel, the more likely they are to perish before they leave the sound.

While steelhead are susceptible to being eaten by a few species of birds, their primary predators appear to be harbor seals. These findings are supported by a new study that placed acoustic receivers on seals and observed that some of the transmitters embedded in steelhead ended up where the seals hang out, suggesting that the fish were probably eaten.

In a different kind of tagging study, Canadian researchers placed smaller passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in a large number of coho salmon and attached devices to read the PIT tags on coho salmon.

“What is most interesting to date,” states a new report from the Pacific Salmon Foundation,“ (PDF 4 mb), “is that we only have confirmed feeding on tagged coho salmon by four of the 20 seals equipped with receivers. This suggests that feeding on juvenile salmon may be an opportunistic behavior acquired by a limited number of seals.”

New studies are underway to confirm steelhead predation by looking at fecal samples from seals in South Puget Sound. Researchers hope to figure out what the seals are eating and estimate steelhead consumption.

As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, it may be more than a simple case of seals eating steelhead. For one thing, seal populations may have increased while their other food choices have decreased. Would the seals be eating as many steelhead if Puget Sound herring populations were close to their historical averages?

Other factors may be making young steelhead vulnerable to predation. A leading candidate is a parasite called Nanophyetus salmincola, which can infest steelhead and perhaps increase their risk of predation. The parasite’s life cycle requires a snail and a warm-blooded animal, as I described in a story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — part of a larger piece about disease as a powerful ecological force. Anyway, the snail is found only in streams in South Puget Sound, which might help explain why steelhead deaths are higher among these South Sound populations.

Experiments are underway to compare the survival of two groups of identical steelhead, one group infested with Nanophyetus and one not.

Depending on funding and proper design, another experiment could test whether treating a stream to temporarily eliminate the snail — an intermediate host — could increase the survival of steelhead. If successful, treating streams to remove these snails could be one way of helping the steelhead. For these and other approved and proposed studies, check out the Marine Survival Project’s “2015-2017 Research Work Plan” (PDF 9.3 mb).

Other factors under review that could play a role in steelhead survival are warming temperatures and pollution in Puget Sound, which could help determine the amount and type of plankton available for steelhead and salmon. Could a shift in plankton result in less food for the small fish? It’s a major question to be answered.

I’ve mentioned in Water Ways (3/15/2010) that transient killer whales, which eat seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises, may be helping their distant cousins, the Southern Resident killer whales, which eat fish. Those smaller marine mammals compete for the adult salmon eaten by the Southern Residents. By clearing out some of those competitors, the transients could be leaving more salmon for the Southern Residents.

It may be too early to draw any firm conclusions, Michael Schmidt told me, but transient killer whales may be helping steelhead as well. Last year, when transients ventured into South Puget Sound and stayed longer than usual, the survival rate for steelhead from the nearby Nisqually River was the highest it has been in a long time.

Were the whales eating enough seals to make a difference for steelhead, or were the seals hiding out and not eating while the whales were around. Whether there were benefits for the steelhead, we could be seeing what happens when a major predator (orcas) encounters an abundance of prey (seals).

Hormonal studies link orca miscarriages to low chinook salmon runs

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo
An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf in this high-resolution photo taken from a drone. Lactation takes an energetic toll on orca moms. Future images may reveal whether Calypso is getting enough food to support herself and her calf.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium, under NMFS permit and FAA flight authorization.

It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.

It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a growing fetus during times of a food shortage.

Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.

In a story published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft (drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.

Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales, which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated, but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’ long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.

One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not in significant numbers.

The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is providing precise measurements about the length and width of each killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it will be important to document whether physical changes observed in the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the other study.

“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations might be affecting their health and reproduction.”

Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Residents.

By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether actions proposed to help them have been carried out.

Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight endangered species across the country that are headed for extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight, selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as “Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans were released for all eight species.

The plan called “Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2 mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’ survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.

New Bucklin Hill Bridge helps restore habitat in Clear Creek estuary

Tidal waters in Silverdale flow smoothly in and out of Clear Creek estuary, passing under a new 240-foot-long bridge — a massive structure that has replaced a pair of six-foot culverts.

New Bucklin Hill Bridge Photo: C. Dunagan
New Bucklin Hill Bridge // Photo: C. Dunagan

I visited the site this afternoon, walking over to the bridge from Old Mill Park, and I found the changes startling. Flows of freshwater from Clear Creek joins saltwater that trickles through tidal channels from Dyes Inlet. Tidal shifts are reshaping the estuary, flushing out trapped sediment and leaving deposits of gravel of varying size. When the fall rains come, salmon will be able to linger in the estuary upstream or downstream of the bridge before moving up into the watershed.

Twin culverts before construction begins. Photo: Kitsap County
Twin culverts before construction
Photo: Kitsap County

Traffic across the estuary was shut off for construction a little more than a year ago. Now county officials are planning to celebrate the opening of the new bridge on Friday of next week (July 22). The ceremony, led by Kitsap County Commissioner Ed Wolfe, will begin at 10 a.m. on the east end of the bridge. A Marine Corps honor guard will present the colors, and the Central Kitsap High School marching band will perform.

“We encourage the community to join us in celebrating this special occasion,” Ed stated in a news release. “The new bridge not only addresses traffic needs, but provides additional non-motorized enhancements as well as restoring Clear Creek estuary with the removal of culverts.”

Parking will be available at the former Albertson’s/Haggen grocery store parking lot near the intersection of Bucklin Hill and Mickelberry roads.

The $19.4 million construction project is said to be the largest project of its kind ever undertaken by the county. The bridge allows the roadway to be widened from two to four lanes with a new left-turn lane at Levin Road and a center two-way turn lane elsewhere in the area. The project adds new bike lanes, sidewalks and pedestrian overlooks.

Looking upstream from under the new bridge. Photo: C. Dunagan
Looking upstream from under the new bridge
Photo: C. Dunagan

Kitsap County Public Works has posted a large number of photos showing the progress of construction on its Bucklin Hill Bridge project page.

After the bridge opens, the contractor, Granite Construction, will continue to finish various aspects of the project. Occasional traffic delays can be expected, according to county officials.

Chris Butler-Minor, a master’s degree candidate at Portland State University, is studying the ecological changes resulting from the project with the help of volunteers. They are collecting water samples and monitoring sediments, vegetation and invertebrates.

“It’s a yearlong inconvenience but the outcome will be improved transportation, improved bike and pedestrian access, and the salmon are going to love it,” Chris was quoted as saying in a story by Kitsap Sun reporter Ed Friedrich.

The new Bucklin Hill Bridge opens up the estuary. Photo: C. Dunagan
The new Bucklin Hill Bridge opens up the estuary. // Photo: C. Dunagan

Canary rockfish likely
to be removed from Endangered Species List

One of the three species of rockfish listed as threatened or endangered in the Puget Sound region is about to be pulled off the Endangered Species List, following recent scientific findings.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish
Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Genetic studies carried out with the help of fisherfolk from Kitsap County have determined that canary rockfish are not a discrete population from those found off the Washington Coast. An official comment period on the delisting is open until Sept. 6, as described in the Federal Register.

I first discussed early evidence of this genetic finding a year ago. Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, confirmed that limited genetic samples of canary rockfish from coastal areas appeared no different from samples taken from Puget Sound. Kelly wanted to review analyses from additional samples before drawing firm conclusions. See Water Ways, June 18, 2015.

Removing canary rockfish from the Endangered Species List will have no effect on yelloweye rockfish, listed as threatened, or bacaccio, listed as endangered. The change also is expected to have no immediate effects on fishing rules, which are designed to protect all rockfish in Puget Sound.

Rockfish are considered an important part of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Understanding the causes of their decline and finding ways to rebuild their populations could help with the recovery of a variety of other marine species, experts say.

A five-year review (PDF 15.1 mb) on the status of the three species of rockfish was due last year, but it was delayed until April of this year to include the new genetic information. In addition to a proposal to delist canary rockfish, the report discusses the difficulty in gathering population data. The authors were able to report:

“The data suggest that total rockfish declined at a rate of 3.1 to 3.8 percent per year from 1977 to 2014 … or a 69 to 76 percent total decline over that period. We did not find evidence for subpopulations with different population growth rates.”

Those involved in the scientific effort expressed appreciation to the anglers who went out with them to track down rockfish and take fin clips for genetic sampling. The effort also included information from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where researchers surveyed rockfish areas with divers and remotely operated vehicles.

“Without the expertise of experienced fishing guides, anglers, and WDFW’s rockfish survey data, it would have been difficult to find the canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish to collect the fin clips needed for the study,” according to a question-and-answer sheet from NOAA Fisheries (PDF 534 kb).

The local fishing experts were able to take the researchers to the hotspots where rockfish have always been found.

During the sampling, fishers were careful to release the rockfish with “descending devices” to get them safely back to deep water, where they reside. That is a technique recommended for all anglers who catch rockfish while fishing for other species. For details, see “Bring That Fish Down” (PDF 673 kb) by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Among those helping with the survey were Ray Frederick, a longtime leader in the Kitsap Poggie Club, a local fishing group, and Randy Jones, a charterboat operator from Port Orchard.

Ray recalls catching rockfish decades ago while fishing for salmon and other fish. “I considered myself lucky if I caught a rockfish and brought it home, because they’re really good eating,” Ray said in a story written by Ed Quimby, a former NOAA writer. “I prefer salmon,” Ray added, “but my wife likes rockfish better.”

Efforts to develop a recovery plan for rockfish continue for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio as required by the Endangered Species Act. Details can be found on NOAA’s webpage “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”

Orca population remains uncertain on census day

The annual census of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is supposed to be based on a population count for July 1 each year, but this year the count has barely begun as we move into July.

J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb. Photo: Ken Balcomb, taken under U.S. and Canadian permits
J-40, named Suttles, breaches in the latest encounter reported by Ken Balcomb.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, under U.S. and Canadian permits

For years, all three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically wandered into Puget Sound in late May or early June, but things have been changing. So far this year, most of the whales have remained somewhere else, probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. And that even goes for J pod, the most resident of the resident pods.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who is responsible for the census, said the Fraser River chinook run has been so low this year that the whales have stayed away. He may not be able to get a complete count until September, he told me.

Of course, Ken and his associates will take attendance as the whales come into the Salish Sea. Some assumptions will have to be made about the timing of any births or deaths. But whales won’t be counted as missing until they are not seen with their family groups during multiple encounters.

“We’re not going to be able to say that somebody is dead at the end of July because we have not seen them,” Ken said, “since there is a low probability of seeing them between now and September.”

As with this year, the census could not be completed at this time last year. But, unlike this year, only two small groups of whales had not been seen going up to census day on July 1 last year. See Water Ways, July 1, 2015.

As the whales have stayed out to sea longer each year, Ken has requested additional federal funding to search for them and get an early indication of their condition, but his requests have been denied. Those who wish to support his ongoing efforts may purchase a membership in the Center for Whale Research.

On Monday, Ken caught up with a small group of J pod orcas that are led by the matriarch J-2, known as Granny. It was only the second time that J pod whales have been seen in inland waters during the entire month of June. On Saturday, a large group of orcas was spotted by observers near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But most of them apparently stayed in the open ocean.

Ken speculates that Granny and the others were following an aggregation of salmon when he caught up with them at Turn Point near the Canadian border. He posted a report today with this information:

“J19 and J41 were the west-flanking whales, and J14, J37 and J49 were the east-flanking whales, while J2 and L87 charged in a zig-zag pattern down the middle of the tide rips that shot up vertically like haystacks of water, dousing the boat and camera. The others (J40 and J45) were here and there in the swirls, surfacing with no particular pattern. It was quite challenging to take photographs in such conditions, but it was important to get some documentation of their occurrence and activity, since they had not spent much time in the Salish Sea so far this year.”

The abundance of chinook in the Fraser River — which produces much of the fish in the San Juan Islands — is tracked by prescribed fishing in Canada’s so-called Albion Test Fishery. As you can see from the graph, the catch per unit effort is considerably lower than the long-term average, barely making a blip at the bottom of the chart.

This year's catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year's fishery did not begin until April 26. Graphic: Canadian DFO
This year’s catch per unit effort in the Albion Test Fishery is much lower than the long-term average. This year’s fishery did not begin until April 26.
Graphic: Canadian DFO

Meanwhile, the abundance of chinook off the Washington Coast is predicted in pre-season forecasts to be slightly above the 10-year average. Forecasts for this year’s chinook runs are higher than last year’s forecast but not as high as the surprisingly high numbers of chinook that ultimately came back last year. See 2016 chinook forecast (PDF 135 kb).

Considering the apparent difference between the number of chinook in the ocean and those coming to the Fraser River, it is no wonder that the whales still remain off the coast.

Given the low salmon runs, Ken says he will be surprised if the annual census does not include some mortalities. One small group of whales, known as the L-12s, have not been seen for months. Meanwhile, four births were recorded since July of last year, with the latest report coming in December. And, as far as anyone can tell, eight of the nine orcas born since December 2014 are still living. It would be remarkable if we are still able to say that when the official census for 2016 is finally reported in September.

Leadership Council adopts ‘leaner’ Action Agenda for Puget Sound

Puget Sound Partnership continues to struggle in its efforts to pull everyone together in a unified cause of protecting and restoring Puget Sound.

This week, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees the partnership, adopted the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda, which spells out the overall strategies as well as the specific research, education and restoration projects to save Puget Sound.

Some 363 projects, known as near term actions, are included in the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda. They line up with three strategic priorities. PSP graphic
Some 363 projects, known as near-term actions, are included in the latest Puget Sound Action Agenda. They line up with three strategic priorities. // PSP graphic

The goal of restoring Puget Sound to health by 2020 — a date established by former Gov. Chris Gregoire — was never actually realistic, but nobody has ever wanted to change the date. The result has been an acknowledgement that restoration work will go on long after 2020, even though restoration targets remain in place for that date just four years away.

A letter to be signed by all members of the Leadership Council begins to acknowledge the need for a new date.

“As the scope and depth of our undertaking expands along with our understanding, federal and state funding is on the decline,” the letter states. “We’re increasingly forced into a position where we’re not only competing amongst ourselves for a pool of funding wholly insufficient to accomplish what needs doing, but we are also feeling the impacts of cuts to programs supporting other societal priorities as well. If we continue at our historic pace of recovery, which is significantly underfunded, we cannot expect to achieve our 2020 recovery targets.”

The cost for the near-term actions total nearly $250 million, with most going for habitat restoration. PSP graphic
The cost for the near-term actions in the Action Agenda total nearly $250 million, with most going for habitat restoration.
PSP graphic

This is not necessarily an appeal for money to support the Puget Sound Partnership, although funds for the program have been slipping. But the partnership has always been a coordinator of projects by local, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups and research institutions — where the on-the-ground work is done. That much larger pot of money for Puget Sound efforts also is declining.

“These are threats that compel us to action, fueled by our devotion to place,” the letter continues. “We at the Puget Sound Partnership, along with our local, tribal and regional partners, have a vision of a resilient estuary that can help moderate the increasing pressures of a changing world.

“How we aim to accomplish our vision is found in this updated Action Agenda. For the next two years, this is the focused, measurable and scientifically grounded roadmap forming the core of the region’s work between now and 2020 and beyond.”

The newly approved Action Agenda is the outcome of a greater effort to reach out to local governments and organizations involved in the restoration of Puget Sound. Priorities for restoration projects were developed at the local level with an emphasis on meeting the priorities and strategies developed in previous Action Agendas.

Who will do the projects? Most are to be done by *local groups, including cities, counties, special purpose districts, local integrating organizations and lead entities. PSP graphic
Who will do the projects? Most are proposed by *local groups, including cities, counties, special purpose districts, local integrating organizations and lead entities. // PSP graphic

The latest document is divided into two sections to separate overall planning from the work involved parties would like to accomplish over the next two years. The two parts are called the “Comprehensive Plan” and the “Implementation Plan.”

As determined several years ago, upcoming efforts known as “near-term actions” are focused on three strategic initiatives:

  • Stormwater: Prevent pollution from urban stormwater runoff, which causes serious problems for marine life and humans.
  • Habitat: Protect and restore habitat needed for species to survive and thrive.
  • Shellfish: Protect and recover shellfish beds, including areas harvested by commercial growers and recreational users.

Actions are focused on 29 specific strategies and 109 substrategies that support these ideas. Projects, which may be viewed in a list at the front of the “Implementation Plan,” are aligned with the substrategies.

“This leaner, scientifically grounded strategic recovery plan is a call to action,” the letter from the Leadership Council states. “We know that our restoration efforts are failing to compensate for the thousands of cuts we continue to inflict on the landscape as our population grows and habitat gives way to more humans.

“We know that salmon, steelhead and orcas — the magnificent beings that in many ways define this corner of the world — are struggling to persist as we alter the land and waters to which they’re adapted,” the letter concludes. “And we know that warming temperatures and acidifying seawater are moving us toward a future that we don’t fully understand and are not entirely prepared for. Hard decisions are ahead, and we’re past the point where additional delay is acceptable.”

Olympia oysters fare better than Pacifics in acidified oceans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Ten new species with their own stories to tell

An international team of taxonomists has chosen the “Top 10 New Species of 2016” from among some 18,000 new species named in 2015.

They include a hominin in the same genus as humans and an ape nicknamed “Laia” that might provide clues to the origin of humans, according to information provided by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York, which compiles the list each year.

The list also includes a newly identified giant Galapagos tortoise, two fish, a beetle named after a fictional bear, and two plants — a carnivorous sundew considered endangered as soon as it was discovered and a tree hiding in plain sight, states a news release from ESF.

The annual list of the top 10 new species was established in 2008 to call attention to the fact that thousands of new species are being discovered each year, while other species are going extinct at least as fast.

“The rate of description of species is effectively unchanged since before World War II,” said Quintin Wheeler, ESF president. “The result is that species are disappearing at a rate at least equal to that of their discovery.

“We can only win this race to explore biodiversity if we pick up the pace,” he said. “In so doing we gather irreplaceable evidence of our origins, discover clues to more efficient and sustainable ways to meet human needs and arm ourselves with fundamental knowledge essential for wide-scale conservation success.”

The top-10 list, compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration, is a colorful sampling of the new species being named by taxonomists. The list comes out each year around Mary 23 — the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Descriptions of the “Top 10 New Species of 2016” are taken from information provided by ESF, which permitted use of the photographs. Additional information and photos can be found by following the links below.

Giant Tortoise

Chelonoidis donfaustoi

Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise Photo: Washington Tapia
Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise // Photo: Washington Tapia

A research team working in the Galapagos Archipelago of Ecuador has discovered that two species of giant tortoises — not just one — co-exist on the island of Santa Cruz. The discovery comes 185 years after Charles Darwin noted that slight variations in the shells of tortoises could distinguish which island they were from, which is among the evidence Darwin used in his theory of evolution.

Giant Sundew

Drosera magnifica

Giant sundew Photo: Paulo M. Gonella
Giant sundew // Photo: Paulo M. Gonella

This particiular giant sundew, a carnivorous plant, is the largest sundew ever found in the New World. It is believed to be the first species of plant discovered through a photograph on Facebook. It is considered critically endangered, since it is known to live in only one place in the world, the top pf a 5,000-foot mountain in Brazil.

Hominin

Homo naledi

Homo naledi Photo: John Hawks, Wits University
Homo naledi // Photo: John Hawks, Wits University

Fossil remains of at least 15 individuals makes this the largest collection of a single species of hominin ever found on the African continent. Once the age of the bones is determined, the finding will have implications for the branch of the family tree containing humans.

Photos and description

Isopod

Iuiuniscus iuiuensis

Isopod Photo: Souza, Ferreira & Senna
Isopod // Photo: Souza, Ferreira & Senna

This tiny amphibious crustacean, discovered in a South American cave, represents a new subfamily, genus and species of isopod with a behavior never seen before in its family group: It builds shelters of mud.

Anglerfish

Lasiognathus dinema

Angler fish Photo Ted Pietsch, University of Washington
Angler fish // Photo Ted Pietsch, University of Washington

This two-inch anglerfish — with its odd fishing-pole-like structure dangling in front — was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while assessing natural resource damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The dangling structure, called an esca, is home to symbiotic bacteria that produce light in the darkness of the deep ocean and is presumably used to catch prey.

Photos and description

Seadragon

Phyllopteryx dewysea

Ruby seadragon Image: Josefin Stiller, Nerida Wilson and Greg Rouse
Ruby seadragon skeleton
Image: Josefin Stiller, Nerida Wilson and Greg Rouse

The ruby red seadragon, related to sea horses, is only the third known species of sea dragon. At 10 inches long and living in relatively shallow water off the West Coast of Australia, it is notable for having escaped notice so long. The ruby seadragon was first identified while testing museum specimens for genetics, then the hunt was on for a living sample.

Beetle

Phytotelmatrichis osopaddington

Tiny beetle Photo: Michael Darby
Tiny beetle // Photo: Michael Darby

The scientific name of this tiny beetle, just 1/25th of an inch long, comes from the fictional Paddington Bear, a lovable character in children’s books who showed up at Paddington Station in London with a sign that read, “Please look after this bear.” The researchers hope the name for the new beetle will call attention to the plight of the “threatened” Andean spectacled bear, which inspired the Paddington books. The beetle is found in pools of water that accumulate in the hollows of plants in Peru, where the bear also is found.

Primate

Pliobates cataloniae

Artists recreation of new primate Image: Mar􀀯a Palmero, Institut Catalá de Paleontologia Miquel (ICP)
Artist recreation of new primate // Image: Marta Palmero, Institut Catalá de Paleontologia Miquel (ICP)

An ape nicknamed “Laia” lived about 11.6 million years ago in what is now Spain, climbing trees and eating fruit. She lived before the lineage containing humans and great apes diverged from a sister branch that contains the gibbons. Her discovery raises the prospect that early humans could be more closely related to gibbons than to the great apes.

Flowering tree

Sirdavidia solannona

Open flower and buds on new tree Photo: Thomas Couvreur
Open flower on new tree // Photo: Thomas Couvreur

Found near the main road in Monts de Cristal National Park, in Gabon, this new tree species had been overlooked for years in inventories of local trees, which tended to focus on larger specimens. The tree grows to only about 20 feet high and is so different from related members of the Annonaceae family of flowering plants that it was given its own genus.

Damselfly

Umma Gumma

Male damselfly Photo: Jens Kipping
Male damselfly // Photo: Jens Kipping

This new damselfly, called the sparklewing, is among an extraordinary number of new damselflies discovered in Africa, with 60 species reported in one publication alone. Most of the new species are so colorful and distinct that they can be identified solely from photographs. The name Umma Gumma was taken from the 1969 Pink Floyd album, “Ummagumma,” which is British slang for sex.

Northwest stayed warm in May; new graphics show long-term trends

After warmer-than-average temperatures for much of the past year, May suddenly turned cooler across the nation — except for the Northwest, which remained warmer than normal.

Temp anomaly

Although it seemed cool recently, at least compared to April, Western Washington had the greatest deviation with temperatures between 3 and 5 degrees higher than the 30-year average. See first map.

It seems ironic to write about cooler temperatures after last month’s teaser headline at the top of the Kitsap Sun’s front page: “Earth getting HOT, HOT, HOTTER!”

The big story earlier this month was that worldwide temperatures had broken all-time heat records for 12 months in a row, and April’s record-high temperature was a full half-degree higher than the previous record.

The average temperature hasn’t been below the 20th century average since December 1984, and the last time the Earth broke a monthly cold record was nearly a century ago, in December 1916, according to NOAA records.

“These kinds of records may not be that interesting, but so many in a row that break the previous records by so much indicates that we’re entering uncharted climatic territory (for modern human society),” Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler wrote in an email to Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.

Temp outlook

El Niño, which is now fading, was blamed in part for the unprecedented heat worldwide. But climatologists say the onward march of global warming lies in the background. Last year turned out to be the hottest year on record, easily beating 2014, which was also a record year.

The first four months of this year were so much hotter than 2015 that 2016 is still likely to set another record. NOOA’s Climate Prediction Center says La Niña conditions are on the way, with a 50 percent chance of La Niña by summer and a 75 percent chance by fall.

Summer temperatures are expected to be above average except in the Central U.S., while both coasts are expected to be the most likely to exceed normal temperatures. Check out the second map on this page.

Speaking of the onward march of climate change, computer graphics developers keep coming up with new ways to show how global temperatures are increasing in concert with rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

New normal

Climate Central has combined data sets from NOAA to produce the orange graph,which shows the advance of a trailing 30-year temperature average from 1980 through 2015. To put it simply, we continue to adjust to a new normal.

Others have used animation to depict temperature change. One graphic (below) received a lot of attention this month. Temperature change is represented as the distance from a “zero” circle starting in 1850. Each month, a line moves one-twelfth of the way around the circle, completing 360 degrees each year. The line gets farther and farther from the center and really jumps outward in 2015.

Ed Hawkins, professor of meteorology at the University of Reading near London, created the animation. He credited an associate, Jan Fuglestvedt, with the idea of a spiral.

Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, called it “the most compelling global warming visualization ever made.” His blog post also includes some other visual depictions of climate change.

Another animated graph, by Tom Randall and Blacki Migliozzi of Bloomberg, show similar data depicted as a moving line graph.

NOAA Visualizations plotted temperature differences at various locations on a world map. Over time, it is easy to see how the Earth has gotten generally warmer, accelerating in recent years.

One of the most intriguing graphics, in my opinion, is one that purports to show the various factors that affect global temperature — from volcanic activity to man-made aerosols to greenhouse gases. The designers, Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi of Bloomberg, ask viewers to judge which factor they believe leads to global warming.

Since this is a blog about water issues, I would probably be remiss if I didn’t point out that the consequences of rising greenhouse gases is not just an increase in the Earth’s temperature. We can’t forget that a major portion of the carbon dioxide is being absorbed into the ocean, causing effects on marine life that are far from fully understood.