Category Archives: Oceans

Amusing Monday: On location with music for a warming Arctic Ocean

As chunks of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier break off and crash into the sea next to him, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi plays on, performing a piece he wrote for this moment.

As seen in this video, Einaudi’s piano is situated on a floating platform surrounded by small pieces of floating ice. He came to Norway this past June on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise to make a statement about the need to protect the Arctic Ocean. The composition, “Elegy for the Arctic,” fits the time and place.

“The ice is constantly moving and creating,” he told Sara Peach, a writer for Yale Climate Connections. “Every hour there is a different landscape. Walls of ice fall down into the water and they create big waves.”

Because of global warming, the Arctic is losing its ice, changing this remote ecosystem. Environmentalists are concerned about the increasing exploitation of minerals and fish in this fragile region. Greenpeace is among the groups pushing for international protections.

Supporting the cause, Einaudi performed with his grand piano on an artificial iceberg, 33 feet by 8.5 feet, made of 300 triangles of wood attached together.

“Being here has been a great experience,” he said in a Greenpeace news release issued at the time. “I could see the purity and fragility of this area with my own eyes and interpret a song I wrote to be played upon the best stage in the world. It is important that we understand the importance of the Arctic, stop the process of destruction and protect it.”

“If you haven’t heard the music of Ludovico Einaudi, then it’s probably because you don’t know it’s by Ludovico Einaudi,” writes Tim Jonze, music editor for The Guardian. “For years, his muted piano music has been stealthily soundtracking TV shows and adverts, seeping into our collective consciousness while the mild-mannered Italian behind it stayed out of the limelight.”

He has written songs for numerous soundtracks, including the trailer for “The Black Swan.” He has collaborated with other artists in theater, video and dance. Besides a long list of albums, his credits include multiple television commercials in Europe and the U.S.

In March, Einaudi released a music video, “Fly,” for Earth Hour (second video on this page). In my annual story about Earth Hour, I noted that the event may be losing its appeal in the U.S. but is still going strong in other countries. See Water Ways, March 16.

In the third video on this page, Einaudi discusses his latest project, an album titled “Elements.”

Sea Shepherd regroups, plans new battles with Japanese whalers

An organization called Sea Shepherd Global announced yesterday that it will take up the cause of battling Japanese whaling ships in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica later this year.

The announcement comes just days after court approval of a legal settlement, a deal that will forever block Sea Shepherd Conservation Society from confronting Japanese whalers on the high seas.

Sea Shepherd Global, based in The Netherlands, apparently is out of reach of the U.S. courts, which sanctioned the original Sea Shepherd group for its sometimes violent actions against the whalers. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the U.S. group, is led by its founder, Capt. Paul Watson, who had stepped down for a time.

The Ocean Warrior is a new ship added to Sea Shepherd Global's fleet. Photo: Gerard Wagemakers, courtesy of Sea Shepherd Global
The Ocean Warrior is a new ship added to Sea Shepherd Global’s fleet.
Photo: Gerard Wagemakers, courtesy of SSG

Sea Shepherd Global has mobilized its forces for what it calls the “11th direct-action whale defense campaign.” The group has built a new ship it claims can keep up with and surpass the Japanese harpoon ships. Anyone who has watched “Whales Wars,” the reality television series, probably knows that Sea Shepherd’s ships have suffered from a lack of speed and were often left in wake of the whaling vessels.

Sea Shepherd, with its fierce opposition to killing marine mammals, has always claimed to be on the right side of international law when it comes to whaling. Now its members are inspired by a 2014 ruling in the International Court of Justice, which found that whaling — at least as practiced by Japanese whalers — is not a scientific endeavor. The Japanese government has lost its only justification for whaling until it develops new scientific protocols acceptable to the International Whaling Commission. Review a discussion of these issues in Water Ways, March 31, 2014, with an update on Dec. 14, 2015.

Sea Shepherd Global also justifies its plans with a contempt-of-court citation filed by the Australian Federal Court against the Japanese whalers for killing protected whales within the Australia Whale Sanctuary. Japan, however, does not recognize the sanctuary nor the Australian jurisdiction.

“If we cannot stop whaling in an established whale sanctuary, in breach of both Australian Federal and international laws, then what hope do we have for the protection of the world’s oceans?” asked Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia in a news release. “We must make a stand and defend whales with everything we’ve got.”

After the International Court of Justice ruling, the Japanese took a year off from whaling before submitting a new whaling plan, which was questioned by a scientific committee at the International Whaling Commission. Without waiting for approval, the whalers returned to the Southern Ocean last December. A limited Sea Shepherd fleet followed, but the whalers killed 333 minke whales — a quota approved by the Japanese government but nobody else.

Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) has been engaged in a legal battle with the Japanese-sponsored Institute of Cetacean Research in the U.S. courts. Initially, a U.S. district judge dismissed the Japanese claims. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals called Sea Shepherd a “pirate” organization, ordered the group to stay away from the Japanese ships and eventually found Sea Shepherd in contempt of court for a peripheral involvement in the anti-whaling effort. Initial appeals court ruling: Water Ways, Feb. 26, 2013.

SSCS agreed to pay $2.55 million to settle a damage claim from Japan in light of the contempt ruling. The group had been hoping that Japan’s lawsuit in the U.S. courts would open the door for a countersuit, in which the illegality of Japanese whaling would spelled out and confirmed.

All legal claims and counterclaims were dropped in the settlement agreement (PDF 410 kb) between SSCS and the Institute of Cetacean Research. The agreement, approved last week by U.S. District Judge James Robart, says SSCS cannot approach Japanese whaling ships closer than 500 yards. SSCS cannot provide financial support to anyone else who would approach the Japanese ships in an aggressive way, including “any entity that is part of the worldwide ‘Sea Shepherd’ movement and/or uses or has used some version of the ‘Sea Shepherd’ name.”

The agreement mentions a “settlement consideration to be paid to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,” although the amount has not been disclosed.

The Institute of Cetacean Research immediately issued a news release about the settlement. Paul Watson offered a three-pronged post on his Facebook page. One part was his own message, saying Sea Shepherd would remain opposed to whaling but would comply with the settlement provisions.

Another part was a statement from Capt. Alex Cornelissen, director of Sea Shepherd Global:

“The ruling in the US courts affects ONLY the US entity. All the other Sea Shepherd entities in the Global movement are not bound by the US legal system, the mere assumption that it does clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of Sea Shepherd Global’s structure. Sea Shepherd Global and all other entities around the world, other than the USA, will continue to oppose the illegal Japanese whaling in the Antarctic.”

The third part was a quote from a BBC story:

“Jeff Hansen, managing director of Sea Shepherd Australia, told the BBC the U.S. ruling would ‘absolutely not’ affect its own operations. He said if the ICC (sic, ICR?) were to pursue Sea Shepherd in Australia ‘they would be entering into a court system they’re in contempt of, and we would welcome that.’”

In its statement yesterday, Sea Shepherd Global said it was disappointed that the international community has not taken more steps to protect whales in the Southern Ocean. Still, Sea Shepherd Global will be there with a new fast ship, the Ocean Warrior, built with the financial support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the British People’s Postcode Lottery and the Svenska PostkodLotteriet.

“For the first time, we will have the speed to catch and outrun the Japanese harpoon ships, knowing speed can be the deciding factor when saving the lives of whales in the Southern Ocean,” said Cornelissen.

The Ocean Warrior will undergo final preparations in Australia at the end of the year, about the time that Japanese whaling ships arrive for their anticipated harvest of marine mammals. And so the whale wars will go on but without any involvement from Paul Watson and his U.S. contingent.

By the way, Paul, who had been living in exile in France, has returned to the U.S., according to a news release from Sea Shepherd that recounts Paul’s history of fleeing from prosecutors in Japan and Costa Rica. Paul, 65, and his wife, Yanina Rusinovich, a Russian-born opera singer, are now living in Woodstock, Vermont, and expecting a baby in October.

Amusing Monday: Purple sea creature becomes an unlikely video star

Purple stubby squid is a real creature from the deep sea. Photo: EV Nautilus/YouTube
Purple stubby squid is a real creature from the deep sea.
Photo: EV Nautilus/YouTube

Wait! Don’t touch that! It’s not a toy. It’s a living thing.

Researchers aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus were scanning the seafloor off the coast of California using an unmanned submarine when they spotted a purple thing that caused them to laugh with amusement.

“It looks so fake,” one researcher said. “It looks like some little kid dropped their toy.” (Watch and listen in the first video player on this page.)

They maneuvered the remotely operated vehicle Hercules closer and continued to laugh at the creature with eyes that looked glued on. Later, as the video went viral, this purple cephalopod — a class that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish — became known to many people as the “googly eyed squid.” Since Aug. 12, more than 2.5 million viewers have clicked on the video.

This species, Rossia pacifica, is known to Puget Sound divers as the stubby squid or sometimes the bobtail squid, but it is not a true squid. See The Cephalopod Page by James Wood to understand the relationship among family groups.

This particular stubby squid was seen in early August on the seafloor about 2,950 feet deep off the California Coast. They can be found from throughout the North Pacific south to Southern California. They are found at many depths from coastal waters to inland seas.

The second video shows a bobtail squid spotted from the EV Nautilus in August of 2014, and the third shows a flapjack octopus from August of 2015.

Roland Anderson of Seattle Aquarium described early surveys in Puget Sound, where stubby squids were found in muddy sand at 11 sites between Seattle and Tacoma, including Elliott and Commencement bays. Check out “Field Aspects of the Sepiolid Squid.” (PDF 3.3 mb)

In a piece on “The Cephalopod Page,” Anderson writes, “One surprising thing recently learned about stubby squid is that they are found in polluted urban bays with highly polluted bottom sediments, such as the inner harbors of Seattle and Tacoma.

“There may be several reasons they can survive there. Deposition from rivers maybe capping polluted sediments. Their short life spans (just two years from eggs) may not allow them to absorb a significant amount of pollutants from the sediments. Another survival factor may be the stubby squid’s ability to produce copious quantities of mucus, which may protect it from the sediments like a thick Jello jacket.”

Reporter Stefan Sirucek of National Geographic News interviewed Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“It’s not an uncommon species,” he said. “They get all the way from scuba-diving depths down into the deep sea. If that is all one species, then it’s pretty broadly distributed.”

Vecchione said large eyes are fairly common among deep-see animals.

“They are funny-looking eyes, but I’ve seen other species of this genus that had eyes that looked very similar,” he said. “People were actually asking whether those eyes were photo-shopped in to make it look more like a cartoon or something. No, those are the real eyes. That’s what they look like.”

In low light, the big eyes help them hunt for crustaceans and avoid predators. In either case, the strategy is to remain still so other animals don’t notice it there, which can make it look like a child’s toy.

“My guess is it was probably frozen because of this big machine that was brightly lit up in front of it,” Vecchione said in the interview. “So it was trying not to be seen, basically.”

Agency failing to protect marine mammals from the Navy — Joel Reynolds

After more than a decade of losing court battles, the U.S. Navy still refuses to fully embrace the idea that whales and other sea creatures should be protected during Navy training exercises, says Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Joel Reynolds
Joel Reynolds

But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says in a blog entry he wrote for the Huffington Post.

“In fact, much of the blame lies with the government regulatory agency whose mandate it is to protect our oceans,” he writes. “It lies with the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to do its job.”

Joel has been at the forefront of the legal effort to get the Navy to change its ways — and the effort has been successful to a large degree. At least we now have a much greater understanding about the effects of sonar on whales and other marine animals. Legal challenges forced the Navy to acknowledge that it didn’t really know what damage its activities were doing to the oceans. The result was to develop studies, which turned out to provide some unwelcome answers.

Joel’s latest frustration comes this week in the wake of new authorizations by NMFS to sanction Navy activities found to be unacceptable by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Joel’s life story and that of Ken Balcomb, who I call the dean of killer whales in Puget Sound, are described in intriguing detail in the book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz. The book documents their personal and legal battles to hold the Navy accountable for its impacts on whales.

In January 2015, I reviewed the book (“My take on the book…,” Water Ways, Jan. 10, 2015), and I also interviewed the author for his inside story (“A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz,” Jan. 11, 2015).

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett.
U.S. Navy photo

The Navy would never have found itself on the losing side of these sonar lawsuits if the National Marine Fisheries Service (sometimes called NOAA Fisheries) had been doing its congressionally mandated job of protecting marine mammals, Joel says. For the agency, that would mean approving “take” permits only when the Navy has done its best to reduce the risk of injury during training exercises — which everyone agrees are important.

“Rather than exercising the oversight required by law, the Service has chosen in effect to join the Navy’s team, acquiescing in the omission of common-sense safeguards recommended even by its own scientific experts,” Joel writes in his latest blog post.

After reading his post, I asked Joel by phone yesterday what it would take to get the National Marine Fisheries Service on the right track.

“I don’t have an easy answer for that,” Joel told me, noting that he recently held a related discussion with Sylvia Earle, renowned oceanographer and formerly chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“She is very familiar with the problems of NMFS,” Joel said. “She said NMFS is an agency responsible for killing fish.”

That said, the agency has a lot of dedicated researchers and experts who know what needs to be done, especially at the regional level. But they are hamstrung by federal politics and by budget limitations.

“The Pentagon is essentially able to dictate every part of government,” Joel said. “The financial implications are very real, because the military is so powerful. If NMFS gives them trouble, they call their contacts on Capitol Hill, and pressure is brought to bear.”

The Navy has spent decades operating at its own discretion throughout the world’s oceans. The notion that another federal agency or some upstart environmental groups should limit its activities just doesn’t sit well among established Navy officers.

The problem is so entrenched in government that any resolution “is going to take some focused attention under the next administration,” according to Joel.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, Joel said he might look to John Podesta to untangle the mess. Podesta served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and was instrumental in opening up long-held but arguably unnecessary government secrets. He currently serves as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“John Podesta understands these things,” Joel told me. “If we can’t get him (to do something), we can’t get anyone. I think it would take a reorganization. The way NMFS is set up, they are in the business of authorizing ‘take’ instead of issuing permits based on the protections that are needed.”

Joel wasn’t clear how a regulatory agency might be organized to hold its own against the Navy, but the idea should be on the table, he said. Until then, the NRDC and other environmental groups will continue to battle in the courts, where judges are able to use some common sense.

Meanwhile, NOAA has developed an “Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap,” which promises to find ways to control harmful man-made noise. The roadmap is based, in part, on scientific studies about the hearing capabilities of marine mammals. Review my Water Ways post on the “draft guidance” Water Ways, March 26, 2016.

These steps have been encouraging — at least until this week when NMFS issued letters of authorization for the Navy to keep operating under its 2012 plan, which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had declared a failure to meet requirements for the “least practicable adverse impact.” (Read the opinion.)

The agency chose to move ahead because the court had not yet issued its mandate — a formal direction to a lower court — by the time the letters of authorization were issued.

“The Navy has a robust and practicable monitoring and mitigation program that we believe is very effective in reducing the likelihood of injury,” according to an explanation from NMFS.

Check out Ramona Young-Grindle’s story about this latest finding in yesterday’s Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from Joel:

“We are astonished to see an LOA issued in the wake of the court of appeals’ decision that the LFA (low frequency active sonar) permit is illegal. NMFS is entrusted under federal law to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the benefit of marine mammals — not for the convenience of the Navy. This capitulation to the Navy’s request to continue ‘business as usual’ under a permit determined by a federal court to be illegal is outrageous.”

Demanding international changes to help protect marine mammals

After 43 years and some legal prodding, the United States is preparing to use its economic and political power to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to publish regulations that will set up a system to ban imports of seafood from any country that fails to control the killing of marine mammals in its fishing industry.

Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

To avoid a ban, foreign controls must be as effective as standards adopted by the United States to reduce the incidental death and injury to marine mammals in the U.S. fishing industry. Harvesting nations that wish to continue selling fish and fish products to U.S. markets will have five years to implement their marine mammal protection programs, if they have not already done so.

When it was first approved by Congress in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act included provisions that would ban imports of fish caught in commercial fisheries where the “bycatch” of marine mammals exceeded U.S. standards. But the law was largely ignored until environmental groups filed a lawsuit against NOAA two years ago. The lawsuit was eventually settled, with NOAA agreeing to approve new rules by August of this year.

NOAA estimates that 650,000 marine mammals are killed each year in fishing operations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers obtain 94 percent of their seafood from a growing import market valued at $33 billion in 2013.

“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to the U.S. market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’”

Comments were made in a joint news release from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — the three groups that brought the lawsuit.

Graphic: NOAA
Graphic: NOAA

The new regulatory program on imports calls on NOAA Fisheries to issue a “comparability finding” after harvesting nations demonstrate that they have a regulatory program that meets U.S. standards for protecting marine mammals. Each program must prohibit the incidental killing or serious injury to marine mammals in all fisheries, estimate numbers of marine mammals on their fishing grounds and find ways to reduce harm if established limits are exceeded.

Over the next year, the regulations call for NOAA Fisheries to request information on marine mammal bycatch from countries that export to the U.S. On a list of foreign fisheries, each fishery will be classified either as “export” or “exempt.” Exempt fisheries are determined to have a remote chance of killing marine mammals, so they are not required to have a regulatory protection program. Those fisheries likely to impact marine mammals and those lacking information about impacts are placed in the export category. All fisheries must prohibit intentional killing of marine mammals to receive certification.

At the end of the five-year period, NOAA Fisheries will publish a list of fisheries that will not receive a comparability finding along with a list of fish banned from import. Those countries will receive information about why they were denied certification and are eligible to reapply at any time. Other details are outlined in a fact sheet from NOAA Fisheries.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, a group appointed by the president to advise the government on the Marine Mammal Protection Act, welcomed the long-overdue regulations to protect marine mammals throughout the world, but said the five-year implementation period is too long. See comments, Nov. 9, 2015. (PDF 1.4 mb):

“Inasmuch as this is an ongoing, long-standing statutory requirement, the Commission does not see a legal basis for deferring implementation. To the extent that any delay can be countenanced, it should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to secure the required information from exporting countries.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed delay would result in at least another six years during which seafood could continue to be imported into and sold in the United States, despite unacceptably high levels of marine mammal bycatch, unbeknownst to U.S. consumers, and during which U.S. fleets would face unfair competition from foreign fleets with little or no accountability to follow comparable marine mammal conservation measures.”

In 1988, while the U.S. was developing new fishing standards to protect marine mammals, U.S. fishermen were required to report the type of gear they were using and any incidental catch of marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Commission noted. Fishermen also were required to allow observers on their boats while the agency developed stock assessments and new rules to protect various species of marine mammals. Those kinds of interim measures should be required of foreign fleets as well, the commission said.

Among its many comments when the rule was first proposed last year, the commission criticized the plan for placing too much burden on NOAA Fisheries to gather the information, rather than requiring the importing countries to document their protections for marine mammals.

“The Commission further recommends that the final rule clearly specify that nations be issued a CF only if they meet the U.S. standards, rather than be issued a CF unless it is shown that they do not meet the applicable requirements.”

As far as I can tell, the final rule failed to incorporate most of the commission’s suggestions. Still, using the economic and political power of the U.S. to protect marine mammals around the world is a considerable leap.

While the new regulations are expected to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen who must comply with marine mammal protections, we have yet to see the full response from other countries. At some point, a ban on U.S. imports is likely to trigger a challenge based on existing international trade agreements. I haven’t seen much written about the legal implications of the new marine-mammal-protection rules, but we have seen what can happen. Review the article by Mark J. Robertson about “dolphin-safe” tuna rules in a report for the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.

Invasive species hitching a ride into Puget Sound

We hear about the “balance of nature,” but it’s not something that we can truly understand until the balance is thrown out of whack by something like climate change or invasive species.

Until I began a recent reporting project for Puget Sound Institute, I never realized that San Francisco Bay was such a hotbed of invasive species. Beginning with the California Gold Rush, ships began moving in and out of the bay in unbelievable numbers, arriving from ports all around the world. Now, more than 200 non-native species are making their permanent home in the bay — including some species that have thoroughly altered the local ecosystem.

So far, we have been lucky in Puget Sound. Experts say we have about 75 firmly established non-native species, yet none of them have created the widespread damage caused in San Francisco Bay by European green crabs and Asian clams or in the Great Lakes by zebra mussels. The video on this page does a good job of telling the Great Lakes story, which has been repeated all over the world.

Once people in Washington state realized how disruptive invasive species can be, the struggle was on to protect Puget Sound from alien invaders — particularly those found in San Francisco Bay, which is just a short hop away on the world scale. My series of stories talks about concerns for Puget Sound and the efforts to control a possible invasion.

Three weeks ago in Water Ways, I described legislation that would reduce state and federal controls over invasive species. See “Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters.”

On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species. Photo: NOAA
On the East Coast, where they are native, striped bass are one of the most popular sport fish. Here, Angela Anning of Connecticut shows off her impressive striper. On the West Coast, striped bass could be considered an invasive species.
Photo: NOAA

Invasive species range in size from microscopic viruses to four-foot-long striped bass. In California, the striped bass became a prized sport fish after it was intentionally introduced in 1879. But over the past decade concerns have grown for their effects on the salmon population. The jury is still out on whether high numbers of stripers should be sustained for anglers or the population should be fished down rapidly to save salmon and other species. Check out these stories:

Meanwhile, striped bass have been moving up the West Coast, possibly because of warmer waters due to climate change. A few years ago, a 55-pounder was caught in the Columbia River, and I’ve heard rumors that they have been seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

On the small side, I report on a tiny crustacean, an invasive copepod that has almost entirely displaced native copepods in Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound. Copepods are important prey for small fish, including herring, which feed the larger salmon. The invasive copepods are smaller and more difficult for fish to see, which could have a cascading effect on the entire food web.

Invasive copepod Oithona davisae under magnification Photo: Jeff Cordell, University of Washington
Invasive copepod Oithona davisae
Photo: Jeff Cordell, UW

A major concern for Puget Sound biologists is the European green crab, which could move into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay in ballast water or with warm ocean currents during an El Niño year, like the one just past. As I describe in the new series, a major program involving citizen science volunteers is ongoing in a search to find the first green crabs before they gain a foothold.

Pacific oysters, another non-native species, were intentionally brought to the Northwest from Japan in the early 1900s to replace the native Olympia oyster, which had been decimated by poor water quality. Pacific oysters soon became a mainstay of the shellfish industry in the Puget Sound region and are now growing thick in numerous areas.

European green crab Photo: Washington Sea Grant
European green crab
Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW

Similar introductions of Pacific oysters occurred in California beginning more than 100 years ago, but for some reason the oyster populations never took hold, according to a report in the publication California Fish and Game (PDF 1.7 mb). Finally, in the early 2000s, the invasion began to take off.

“It remains unclear why there should be a successful invasion now, given the failure of previous attempts to deliberately introduce the species both locally and throughout California…,” the report says.

“If populations in Southern California waters do continue to expand and grow, as they have in other areas where they have invaded, it will undoubtedly bring changes to the way our estuarine intertidal habitats function as well as in the way we must manage them.

Pacific oyster Photo: Washington Sea Grant
Pacific oyster
Photo: Washington Sea Grant

“Because Pacific oysters rapidly reach large sizes, they could pose problems related to fouling of maritime equipment, infrastructure, and vessels,” the report continues. “Pacific oysters stand out as one of the most transformative invaders of marine ecosystems.”

As Washington state takes steps to keep alien species from invading Puget Sound from California, California officials may adopt similar measures to block invaders from coming into that state.

Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris Symer:

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.

Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.

The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term damage to coastal and Great
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it has been associated with the transfer of invasive species throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports where they unload their cargo before moving to their next destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms that hitched a ride.

Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches or underwater areas.

Rules and more rules

To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from another coastal inlet.

Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound from California.

For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today. San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species, including the European green crab and the Asian clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to the shellfish industry in various locations.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74 non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone unnoticed.

In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters” zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.

While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.

The International Maritime Organization has one treatment standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable” organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific treatment systems.

Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may face.

The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the EPA.

The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.

Legislation and politics

That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA. Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth understanding of the bill, read the Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).

The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other things associated with national defense.

The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both houses.

The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.

In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill. Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home, where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan Friedman’s story in Fortune.)

President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. See Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.

Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple, confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly changes to equipment.

Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the environment.

“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that brought the lawsuit against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).

“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard, which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our waters, but this is not one of them.”

The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue strong requirements, the states would not need their own regulations.

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.”