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
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
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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
But the blame cannot be placed entirely on the Navy, Joel says
in a blog entry he wrote for the
“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
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.
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
“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
“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
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
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
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 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
Courthouse News, which includes these further comments from
“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.”
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget
Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 …”
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
“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
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.
“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
“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
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 email@example.com.
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
Could there be another trigger that increases the virulence of
“Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at
that now,” Menge said. “Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be
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 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
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
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
“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
“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast.
Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from
paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish
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.
“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will
take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new
meaning, some with dangerous implications.
Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits
light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects
in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is
the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine
mammals and other species that live under water.
The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use
low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an
entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to
locate their prey in dark waters.
“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is
their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with
the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.
“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale
research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about
16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where
he was doing research in 2001.
“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now
dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when
one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were
trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”
Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts
were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two
years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.
As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with
the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans.
Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world
with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training
and shoreline construction?
“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris
Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is
the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in
the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so
that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing
voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”
This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat
as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally
devastating to some species.
In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast
were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress
hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except
for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened
right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down
following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t
clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it
can’t be good. See
Duke University press release.
The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made
quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more
efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also
reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping,
people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm
to sea life.
The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be
a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course,
protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but
the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a
“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living
ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean
at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”
The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as
provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer
provided by Discovery Channel.
A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is
underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36
scientists from five countries.
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
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
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
“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
To learn how satellites gather information about the California
Current, check out
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
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
“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.