Category Archives: Research

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.

Big sea stars, but no babies, observed
in Lofall this week

“Still no babies,” commented Peg Tillery, as we arrived at the Lofall dock in North Kitsap in search of sea stars clinging to pilings under the dock.

Barb Erickson examines sea stars at the base of a pier in Lofall. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Barb Erickson examines sea stars at the base of a pier in Lofall on Hood Canal.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

“They say there’s a comeback of the little ones,” noted Barb Erickson, “but I’m not seeing any of them.”

Peg and Barb are two of three retired volunteers who first brought me to this site two years ago to explain their ongoing investigation into the mysterious “sea star wasting disease.” Since our first trip, researchers have identified the virus that attacks sea stars, causes their arms to fall off and turns their bodies to a gooey mush.

I first witnessed the devastation in June of 2014, when starfish were dying by the millions up and down the West Coast (Water Ways, June 17, 2014). Lofall, a community on Hood Canal, was just one location where the stars seemed to be barely clinging to life. Now, just a fraction of the population still survives in many locations.

Bruce Menge of Oregon State University recently reported an upsurge in the number of baby starfish on the Oregon Coast, something not seen since the beginning of the epidemic.

“When we looked at the settlement of the larval sea stars on rocks in 2014 during the epidemic, it was the same or maybe even a bit lower than previous years,” said Menge in a news release from OSU. “But a few months later, the number of juveniles was off the charts — higher than we’d ever seen — as much as 300 times normal.”

As Peg and Barb pointed out, the recovery at Lofall has been hit or miss during more than two years of monitoring the site. I became hopeful on my return trip to the dock in January of 2015, when I noticed a mix of healthy adult and juvenile sea stars (Water Ways, Jan. 20,2015).

This week, the young ones were nowhere in sight. Clusters of healthy adult ochre stars were piled on top of each other at the bottom of the piers, waiting for the tide to come back in. I was not sure what to make of it.

Sea stars clusters on two adjacent piers at Lofall dock. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Sea stars clusters on two adjacent piers at Lofall dock.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

“it could be worse,” Barb said. “I think it is neutral news.” Peg agreed, saying, “It could be totally worse.”

Summer has been the period of reckoning in past years, and we should soon know if we are in for another round of disease, which could kill off more of the surviving sea stars, or if the disease is finally on the wane.

Linda Martin, who normally compiles the data, was not along on this week’s trip to Lofall, but other volunteers filled in for her.

“It is an interesting ride,” Barb told me, referring to her experience as a so-called citizen scientist. “It connects you to the larger picture, and you realize that everything is connected.”

It is nice for people in the community to know that this volunteer work is taking place, Barb said, and that someone is watching for changes in the environment.

“People will come up and ask me if there is anything new, people who couldn’t have cared less before,” she said.

For those interested in this kind of volunteer work, a good place to start is Kitsap Beach Naturalists. One can contact Renee Johnson, program coordinator, at rkjohnson@co.kitsap.wa.us.

Meanwhile, the cause of sea star wasting disease remains somewhat of a mystery even after its connection to the densovirus, which is associated with dead sea stars but also has been found in some that are free of disease.

A laboratory study led by Morgan Eisenlord of Cornell University found that the disease progressed faster when adult sea stars were exposed to higher temperatures and that adult mortality was 18 percent higher when water temperatures reached 66 degrees F. Temperature was documented as a likely factor in the spread of disease through the San Juan Islands.

But temperatures are not the sole controlling factor, because the spread of the disease has been out of sync with temperature change in numerous locations.

“The sea temperatures were warmer when the outbreak first began,” Menge said, “but Oregon wasn’t affected as early as other parts of the West Coast, and the outbreak reached its peak here when the sea temperature plummeted and was actually cooler than normal.”

Could there be another trigger that increases the virulence of the densovirus?

“Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at that now,” Menge said. “Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be multi-faceted.”

Automated monitor provides early warning of harmful algae blooms

Automated equipment installed Monday off the Washington Coast will track concentrations of six species of plankton that could become harmful to humans and marine species.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, collects discrete samples of water and processes them for analysis. Imbedded modules can test for DNA and antibodies to identify the organisms picked up in the seawater. Concentrations of the plankton and their toxins are sent to shore-based researchers via satellite.

The equipment was installed by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington. The device was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Stephanie Moore of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains the benefits of the device in the first video on this page. The second video provides a few more technical details with graphic depictions of the device.

The ESP was deployed in the Juan de Fuca eddy, a known pathway for toxic algae 13 miles off the Washington Coast near LaPush. The remote, self-operating laboratory will operate about 50 feet underwater.

One of the primary targets of the monitoring is Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algae capable of producing domoic acid. This toxin can accumulate in shellfish and can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which can progress to severe illness. Last year, a massive bloom of this toxic algae canceled scheduled razor clam seasons on Washington beaches with untold economic consequences.

The harmful algal bloom (HAB) affected the entire West Coast, from California to Alaska. It was the largest and longest-lasting bloom in at least 15 years, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“Concentrations of domoic acid in seawater, some forage fish and crab samples were among the highest ever reported in this region,” says a factsheet from the service. “By mid-May, domoic acid concentrations in Monterey Bay, California, were 10 to 30 times the level that would be considered high for a normal Pseudo-nitzschia bloom.”

“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast. Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning.”

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is associated with a group of plankton called Alexandrium, typically Alexandrium catenella in the Puget Sound region.

In addition to sampling for Alexandrium and four species of Pseudo-nitzchia, the ESP is monitoring for Heterosigma akashiwo, which is associated with massive fish kills, including farmed salmon.

Anyone can track some of the data generated by the equipment by visiting NANOOS — the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

Early warning of toxic algal blooms can assist state and local health officials in their surveillance of toxic shellfish.

“Anyone can access the data in near-real-time,” UW oceanographer and NANOOS Director Jan Newton told Hannah Hickey of UW News and Information. “It’s an early warning sentry.”

Time to rethink how contaminants get into Puget Sound food web

For years, I have been told the story of how PCBs and other toxic chemicals cling to soil particles and tiny organic debris as polluted water washes off the land.

Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban areas. Photo: WDFW
Richard Henderson of the Skagit River System Cooperative uses a beach seine to catch juvenile chinook salmon near the Skagit River delta. Fish from this rural area were found to be less contaminated than fish taken from urban bays. // Photo: WDFW

Eventually, the PCB-laden particles are carried into Puget Sound, where they settle to the bottom. From there, they begin working their way into marine animals, disrupting their normal functions — such as growth, immune response and reproduction.

The idea that contaminants settle to the bottom is the story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember, a story long accepted among the scientific community in Puget Sound and across the U.S. So I was surprised when I heard that leading scientists who study toxic chemicals in Puget Sound were questioning this long-held idea about how dangerous chemicals get into the food web.

Puget Sound may be different from other waterways, they said.

“When you look at the concentrations in herring and the concentrations in the sediments, something does not line up,” Jim West told me. “The predictions are way off. We think there is a different mechanism.”

Jim is a longtime researcher for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I have worked with him through the years on various stories about the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. But now he was talking about changing the basic thinking about how chemicals are transferred through the food web.

Jim postulates that many of these PCB-laden particles that wash down with stormwater never sink to the bottom of Puget Sound. Instead, they are taken up by tiny organisms floating in the water. The organisms, including bacteria and phytoplankton, are eaten by larger plankton and become incorporated into fish and other free-swimming creatures — the pelagic food web.

Jim presented his findings at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference last month in Vancouver, B.C. Sandie O’Neill, another WDFW researcher, presented other new information about the transfer of contaminants through the food web — from plankton to herring to salmon to killer whales.

My stories about the studies conducted by Jim and Sandie (with help from a team of skilled scientists) were published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where you can read them. These are the first of at least 10 story packages to be to written by a team of reporters working for the Puget Sound Institute.

The Salish Sea conference was attended by more than 1,100 people, including 450 researchers and policymakers who talked about new information related to the Salish Sea — which includes Puget Sound in Washington, the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S./Canada border.

When I first heard about Jim West’s idea regarding the fate of toxic chemicals circulating in Puget Sound, I thought one result might be to shift restoration dollars away from cleaning up sediments to cleaning up stormwater. After all, if the majority of PCBs aren’t getting into the sediments, why spend millions of dollars cleaning up the stuff on the bottom? Why not devote that money to cleaning up stormwater?

In fact, the worst of the contaminated sediments in Puget Sound have been cleaned up, with some cleanups now under way. That helps to ensure that toxic chemicals won’t get re-suspended in the water and taken up into the pelagic food web all over again. A few hotspots of contaminated sediments may still need some attention.

As far as putting the focus on stormwater, that’s exactly what the Puget Sound Partnership has done with support from the Department of Ecology and other clean-water agencies. It is now well established that the key to reducing pollution in Puget Sound is to keep toxic chemicals out of stormwater or else create settling ponds, rain gardens, pervious pavement and other methods to capture the PCB-laden particles before they reach Puget Sound.

I noticed that Ecology just today announced a new round of regulations to control stormwater in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties. Proposed changes include updating stormwater programs for new construction projects and for redevelopment. An appendix will describe Seattle’s plan to reduce stormwater pollution in the Lower Duwamish River, where PCBs are a major problem. For more on stormwater regulations, go to Ecology’s website.

As Sandie told me during our discussions, all the work on fixing habitat in Puget Sound streams is not enough if we can’t control the discharge of PCB’s — which were banned in the 1970s — along with newer contaminants still working their way into our beloved waterway. Any measure of healthy habitat must include an understanding of the local chemistry.

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.

With killer whales, expect the unexpected

I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.

A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, known as L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992. Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research
A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992.
Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research

I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer whales.

The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating them.

It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I also wrote a story on the opening remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human behavior.

A team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least 10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450 presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb. 23.

The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly implicated in the death of the animal, according to a statement from NOAA officials.

Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of sadness and anger from others over the coming days.

“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said in a prepared statement.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” he said.

Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental, but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded darts.

The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body condition” and no clear sign of death. See the DFO news release for a few other details.

Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the cause of death.”

When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing suggesting a change in health status.”

The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped. Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only 1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer whales.

“The team has halted tagging activities until a full reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to reduce risk of this happening again.”

Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging program several years ago as officials were debating whether the endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that he should simply document any problems he sees.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW distribution are justified.”

The tracking studies have been used the past few years to document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also areas where they linger and forage for food.

NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the killer whales are outlined in a question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death of Nigel, L-95.

Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old, has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March 23 near Sooke, B.C.

Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the DFO statement.

A tribute to Ken Balcomb and his 40 years of research on killer whales

An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research organization:

Ken,

Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for efforts to protect them.

On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated. The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the years.

I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the blog.

Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center for Whale Research.

With highest regards, Chris.

Balcomb

The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound. Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas, researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives and even their unique behaviors — which I would call “personalities” for want of a better term.

Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness for the animals in the first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in Port Townsend:

“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy — mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a few skeptics, I’m sure.”

I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting how much more we have to learn.

The following log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½ mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and, at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove again for several minutes.

“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits. Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a little farther offshore.

“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet. The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds down, still proceeding westerly.”

Remember that this was only months after the final capture of killer whales in Puget Sound. (See account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.

If only they could know how much human attitudes around the world have changed over the past 40+ years.