Tag Archives: Invasive species

You can join the search for beetles that threaten Washington trees

Washington state property owners and people with swimming pools are being urged to become part of a defensive initiative to protect trees from invasive beetles.

August is National Tree Check Month, and at least four state agencies are asking tree owners this month to take a 10-minute walk around their property to look for insects that don’t belong in our region.

Nationwide, more than a third of all insect invasions are first detected by average people, according to Justin Bush, executive coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council. Heading off an invasion before it gets started could save untold millions of dollars worth of trees, as well as the costs of battling a spreading insect invasion.

Citrus longhorned beetle
Photo: USDA Plant Protection Service, Bugwood.org

This is the second year that Washington state agencies are bringing the message home from other states where many longtime tree populations have been decimated by insects, including the citrus longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer.

“While we don’t have these two invasive insects right now, we could get them at any moment,” Justin told me. “We want people to help us look for them.”

This year, state officials also are asking people who own swimming pools and ponds to join in the defensive effort, as some of invasive insects end up in the water and die. A swimming pool owner or maintenance person should take note of any unusual insects found in pool filters or among debris skimmed off the surface of the water, he said. On the East Coast, swimming pool owners are often able to spot invasive beetles even before they show up in traps designed to attract them.

It would be helpful if people would look for invasive insects all year long, Justin said, but August is a good time to place a special emphasis on the effort, because this is the time that most wood-boring insects emerge as adults.

Emerald ash borer
Photo: Debbie Miller, U.S. Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Identifying specific species of beetles is often difficult, Justin acknowledged. The best advice is to take pictures of the insect from several angles and send the photos to the Invasive Species Council, InvasiveSpecies@rco.wa.gov, which will find an expert to identify the bug.

People shouldn’t hesitate to send photos, Justin said. “If it comes to us, we can figure it out.”

Another reporting method is to download the “WA Invasives” app to send photos and location data straight from your smart phone. See WISC download page. The app also includes photos and information for identifying invasive species.

When emailing, one should include contact information, including a phone number, along with the location of the insect sighting. (An address or cross-street description would be helpful.) Details about the tree species should be included as well.

If you obtain one of the beetles, you should keep it in case an expert wants to inspect the specimen. Another option is to take the beetle to a local office of WSU Extension, which can forward it to appropriate experts.

The citrus longhorned beetle, a close relative of the disastrous Asian longhorned beetle, is a major concern on the West Coast. The beetle can feed on a variety of hardwood trees, including apple, maple, oak, willow, alder and popular. When they emerge, they leave an exit hole about 5/8-inch in diameter in the tree.

In 2001, the citrus longhorned beetle was found in Tukwila, where it arrived in a shipment of bonsai trees. Three beetles were recovered from the bonsai trees but five others were seen flying away. Nearly 1,000 trees were cut and chipped within one-eighth mile from the location site, and another 1,500 trees farther away were treated with insecticide. The last beetle was seen in the fall of 2002, and a quarantine remained in effect until 2006. See U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

Because of heavy shipping from Asian ports, concerns remain high that damaging beetles will be imported to the West Coast, Justin said. Insects could also arrive from infested areas back East, which is the primary route for European gypsy moths brought into Washington state in moving vans. This state’s gypsy moth eradication program — including nearly 100 local battles since 1979 (PDF 307 kb) — has kept the damaging moths from establishing a permanent foothold in this state.

Besides the citrus longhorned beetle, officials are concerned that the emerald ash borer could devastate ash trees in this state. The exit holes in ash trees are about a quarter-inch in diameter and have a distinctive “D” shape. Ash trees are common in urban areas, and the beetles apparently have been moving westward as campers bring firewood from eastern areas. The beetle was recently discovered in Boulder, Colo.

State agencies involved in the effort to track down the invasive beetles are the Invasive Species Council, Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Washington State University Extension.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers information on these and other invasive insects:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green crab invaders settle in on Dungeness Spit, Olympic Peninsula

An invasion of the European green crab, which started last summer in northern Puget Sound, appears to be continuing this spring with 16 green crabs caught in traps at one location on Dungeness Spit near Sequim.

European green crab
Photo: Gregory C. Jensen, UW

The new findings are not entirely unexpected, given that invasive green crabs have established a viable population in Sooke Inlet at the southern end of Vancouver Island in Canada. From there, young crab larvae can move with the currents until they settle and grow into adult crabs. Last summer and fall, green crabs were found on San Juan Island and in Padilla Bay.

The big concern now is that a growing population of invasive crabs could spread quickly to other parts of Puget Sound, causing damage to commercial shellfish beds and disrupting the Puget Sound ecosystem.

“It knocks the wind out of your sails for sure,” said Emily Grason when I asked how she felt about the latest discovery. “You feel kind of powerless, and you want to get out there and start doing things.”

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Crab Team training will foster the upcoming hunt for green crab invaders

A European green crab invasion may be taking place in Puget Sound, and Washington Sea Grant intends to enhance its Crab Team this summer with more volunteers looking in more places than ever before.

The second European green crab identified in Puget Sound was found in Padilla Bay, where three others were later trapped.
Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve

Training is about to get underway, and anyone with an interest in furthering science while being exposed to the wonders of nature may participate. It’s not always good weather, but I’ve been inspired by the camaraderie I’ve witnessed among dedicated volunteers.

The work involves going out to one or more selected sites each month from April into September with a team of two to four other volunteers. It is helpful to have folks who can carry the crab traps, plastic bins and other equipment. For details, check out the Washington Sea Grant website.

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Ballast water bill could allow invasive species to enter Puget Sound

Invasive species from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country — would have an open door for entry into Puget Sound under a bill moving through Congress.

Vessel Incidental Discharge Act invasive species
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

You may have heard this line before. I posted the same warning last summer, when the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA, was attached to the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act. (Water Ways, July 16). Opponents fought back and were able to strip VIDA from the bill before final passage.

Now, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and an anti-regulatory atmosphere in place, the bill’s passage seems more likely this time — to the detriment of Puget Sound, the Great Lakes and other waterways.

If VIDA passes, ships coming up the coast from California will be able to take on infested ballast water in San Francisco Bay and discharge it without treatment into Puget Sound. Invasive species that hitched a ride in the ballast water would have a chance to populate Puget Sound.

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Invasive oyster drills react differently to predators than natives

Invasive saltwater snails, including dreaded oyster drills, seem to be far more leery of predators than native snails under certain conditions, according to a new study by Emily Grason, whose research earned her a doctoral degree from the University of Washington.

An invasive Atlantic oyster drill feeds on a young Pacific oyster. // Photo: Emily Grason

Why non-native snails in Puget Sound would run and hide while native species stand their ground remains an open question, but the difference in behavior might provide an opportunity to better control the invasive species.

Of course, snails don’t actually run, but I was surprised to learn that they can move quite rapidly to find hiding places when they believe they are under attack.

Like many marine animals, snails use chemical clues to figure out what is happening in their environment. For her experiments, Emily created a flow-through system with two plastic shoeboxes. Chemical clues were provided in the upstream bin, while the reaction of the snails was observed in the downstream bin.

The most dramatic difference between native and non-native snails seemed to be when ground-up snails were deposited in the upstream bin, simulating a chemical release caused by a crab or other predator breaking open snail shells and consuming the tender morsels inside.

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More invasive crabs found; wider search will resume next spring

Padilla Bay, an extensive inlet east of Anacortes in North Puget Sound, could become known as an early stronghold of the invasive European Green crab, a species dreaded for the economic damage it has brought to other regions of the country.

Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. The red markers show locations where invasive European green crabs were found.
Trapping sites for crabs (gray markers) during this week’s rapid assessment in Padilla Bay. Red markers show locations where three more invasive European green crabs were found.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19 (Water Ways, Sept. 24), three more crabs were found during an extensive trapping effort this past week. All four crabs were captured at different locations in the bay. These four live crabs followed the finding of a single adult green crab in the San Juan Islands — the first-ever finding of green crabs anywhere in Puget Sound. (Water Ways, Sept. 15).

With these new findings in Padilla Bay, the goal of containing the crabs to one area has become a greater challenge. Emily Grason, who coordinates a volunteer crab-surveillance program for Washington Sea Grant, discusses the difficulty of putting out enough traps to cover the entire bay. Read her report on the fist day of trapping:

“Similar to our trip to San Juan Island, we are conducting extensive trapping in an effort to learn more about whether there are more green crabs in Padilla Bay. One difference, however, is scale. Padilla Bay is massive, and it’s hard to know exactly where to start. On San Juan Island, the muddy habitats where we thought crabs would do well are well-defined, and relatively limited. Padilla Bay, on the other hand, is one giant muddy habitat — well, not all of it, but certainly a huge portion. We could trap for weeks and still not cover all of the suitable habitat!”

In all, 192 traps were set up at 31 sites, covering about 20 miles of shoreline. The crab team was fortunate to work with the expert staff at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a group of folks who know the area well and had worked with shoreline owners to get approval for access.

Three of the four green crabs caught in Padilla Bay were young, probably washed into the bay during last winter’s warm currents, Emily said in her wrap-up report of the effort.

“All of the detections of European green crabs occurred on the east portion of the bay,” she wrote. “Though the sites varied somewhat in the type of habitat, all of the crabs were found relatively high on the shore, in high salt marsh pools, or within a few meters of the shore.

The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay. Photo: Padilla Bay Reserve
The first of four European green crabs found in Padilla Bay.
Photo: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve

“Padilla Bay has about 20 miles of shoreline, and, at last count in 2004, there were 143 acres of salt marsh habitat in the bay,” she continued.”These numbers suggest that there are a lot of places European green crabs could live in Padilla Bay, and protecting the bay from this global invader will undoubtedly require a cooperative effort.”

Yesterday, the response team held a conference call to discuss what to do next. Team members agreed that no more intensive trapping would take place this year, Sean McDonald of the University of Washington told me in an email.

Winter is a tough time to catch crabs. Low tides shift from daytime hours to nighttime hours, making trapping more difficult. Meanwhile, crabs tend to lose their appetite during winter months, so they are less likely to go into the traps to get food, experts say.

Researchers, shellfish growers and beach walkers are being asked to stay alert for the green crabs, not only in Padilla Bay but also in nearby Samish and Fidalgo bays.

The Legislature will need to provide funding to continue the citizen science volunteer monitoring program, which provided an early warning that green crabs had invaded Puget Sound. Whether the crabs will survive and in what numbers is something that demands more study and perhaps a major eradication effort.

Meanwhile, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to expand its overall Aquatic Invasive Species Program with additional efforts to prevent invaders from coming into Puget Sound. For information, check out my story on invasive species in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling still mostly unregulated.”

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:

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.

Search intensifies
for remaining
spartina invaders

Rain and shine. Rain and shine. Rain and shine.

These are the days of near-perfect growing conditions for plants in Western Washington. If you are battling noxious weeds, it might seem as if the weather is working against you, favoring these destructive invaders along with other plants.

Crews removing spartina from Tulalip Bay. Dept. of Agriculture photo
Crews remove spartina from Tulalip Bay.
Washington Department of Agriculture photo

But one team of weed warriors, hoping to eradicate an invasive plant called spartina, sees this growing season another way. Instead of hindering the eradication effort, this rapid growth of spartina — also known as cordgrass — makes it easier to locate and eliminate the last of the invaders.

“The bad thing is you get a lot more plants than you expect,” said Chad Phillips, spartina coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “The good thing is that a lot of the plants you might not have seen (in a normal year) have germinated, so you can get rid of them.”

Over the past 12 years, the total estimated acreage occupied by spartina in Washington state has been reduced from 9,000 acres to just eight acres. It has been a coordinated effort involving local, state and federal agencies; tribal governments; universities; private landowners; and many volunteers.

The search-and-destroy mission will continue, because the plants have a way of coming back, sometimes showing up in new locations.

Left unchecked, spartina spreads rapidly, crowding out native vegetation while converting ecologically important mudflats into meadows choked with a hardy marsh grass. Besides wrecking shellfish beds, spartina wipes out shoreline habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl while increasing the risk of flooding, experts say.

Those involved in the spartina effort this year are expected to look for spartina plants — and eliminate any they find — over more than 80,000 acres of saltwater estuaries and 1,000 miles of shoreline in 12 counties.

Spartina_map

After working for years in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, spartina crews turned their focus last year to Puget Sound, where about 90 percent of the remaining spartina-infested acreage can be found. The map on this page uses black triangles to depict areas where spartina has been eradicated.

When crews go into an area, they remove all the plants they can find. Individual plants or clusters of plants can be dug by hand, whereas larger infestations may be treated with herbicide.

Crews typically return to a given site twice in a year. A site is considered eradicated if no plants are seen for at least three years with a minimum of six surveys. After that, they will typically return once a year to make sure the plants don’t come back.

The crews are scheduled to visit every shoreline at least once every five years to look for any new infestations of spartina.

The workers obtain permission from property owners before removing or killing plants. But often the neighbors are unaware of what they are doing. Chad said it is not unusual for neighbors to approach crew members to ask why they are there. Sometimes, the crews are suspected of being shellfish poachers.

“If you see us working, feel free to come over and say ‘hi,’” Chad said. “We’ll be on a beach in knee boots with a shovel.”

In Kitsap County, the largest infestation has been at Doe-Kag-Wats, an estuary on the Port Madison Indian Reservation north of Indianola in North Kitsap. After years of removing truckloads of vegetation, the total infestation there was down to 61 square feet last year.

Another infested area has been Foulweather Bluff near Hansville, where 24 square feet of spartina were removed.

Areas considered active because of recent infestations but where no plants were found last year are Manzanita Bay on Bainbridge Island and Coon Bay near Manchester.

Mason and Thurston are the only counties that have never had an infestation, but beaches in those counties remain part of the ongoing five-year survey cycle.

In Puget Sound, most of the spartina found has been identified as the species Spartina anglica, or common cordgrass. This species was introduced to Snohomish County in 1961. The largest infestation in the state today is an area in South Skagit Bay and Port Susan near Stanwood.

Bays on the Pacific Ocean contain primarily Spartina alterniflora, known as smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass. It was introduced to Willapa Bay in the late 1800s, eventually spreading to 8,500 acres. Since 2003, about 99.9 percent of that spartina acreage has been killed or removed, making it one of the largest eradications of an invasive species anywhere in the country.

Spartina patens, known as saltmeadow cordgrass or salt marsh hay, is a native of the Atlantic Coast. It was discovered in the 1990s at Dosewallips State Park on Hood Canal. Dosewallips held the only known infestation of S. patens in Washington state until 2013, when a survey crew found the plant on Navy property on the Toandos Peninsula across from the Bangor submarine base. After receiving permission, the site was treated in 2014. Ongoing efforts will be necessary, as the invasive plant blends in well with native marsh plants.

For a description of the spartina infestations and treatments in each county, check out the “2014 Progress Report” (PDF 41 mb) for the Spartina Eradication Program.