Green crabs entrenched at Dungeness Spit, but new issues are emerging

Dungeness Spit on the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sequim remains a hot spot for the invasive European green crab, which first showed up in Puget Sound during the fall of 2016.

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

The green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species in the world, brings with it the potential to destroy shellfish beds and disrupt key habitats essential to native species in Puget Sound.

Thankfully, except for the Dungeness Spit, new findings of green crabs have been almost zero since a massive volunteer trapping effort resumed in April throughout most of Puget Sound.

I do have some additional news about green crabs to share, so please read on for a discussion of these topics:

  • Green crabs on Dungeness Spit
  • New findings on Whidbey Island
  • Where the crabs are NOT coming from
  • New efforts with Canada
  • First scientific paper on the green crab program
  • New assessment tool on the horizon

Green crabs on Dungeness Spit

So far this year, 42 of the invasive crabs have been found on Dungeness Spit, compared to 96 for all of last year, according to Lorenz Sollman, deputy project leader for the Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

European green crabs have been found on Graveyard Spit, the small spit that juts off the main Dungeness Spit.

So far, nobody knows if the first crabs to arrive on the spit are reproducing or if the young ones being found there are new arrivals. Crabs can travel great distances through the water in larval form before they settle down and take on the familiar appearance of a full-grown crab.

“We don’t have any reason to think that they are not reproducing (at Dungeness),” said Emily Grason, Crab Team coordinator for Washington Sea Grant. The Crab Team is a group of volunteers and experts who monitor 54 trapping sites in the region.

Just this morning, Crab Team members found a new green crab at Dungeness Landing County Park, west of the Dungeness River and just outside the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.

“We’ve had our eye on that site, since it’s so close to the Dungeness Spit and assumed it was only a matter of time before one showed up there,” Emilly wrote me in an email.

Meanwhile, in Makah Bay just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 400 crabs have been captured in an intensive trapping effort this year alone. The first crab was spotted in the bay last fall. Matthew Nash of the Olympic Peninsula News Group updated the situation this week — although it is Makah Bay, not Neah Bay. The latter, which is technically inside Puget Sound, has not been found to have any green crabs.

New findings on Whidbey Island

At the beginning of this month, one of the most intensive trapping programs yet in Puget Sound was conducted over three days at Lagoon Point on Whidbey Island, where two green crabs were caught on different days last year. Working in deep sticky mud, only one green crab was caught in the enclosed lagoon during the latest effort.

Crab Team leaders Sean McDonald, Kelly Martin and Emily Grason following their three-day trapping effort on Whidbey Island.

“While we might have been happier not to catch any green crab, we are certainly glad that we only found one,” wrote Kelly Martin for the Crab Team Blog. Kelly, the newest member of the Crab Team management group, goes on to talk about the trapping adventure — including her accidental sit-down in the mud.

In a previous blog post, Kelly, who is a graduate student at the University of Washington, introduced herself to readers and talked about her background.

Where the crabs are NOT coming from

It has been suspected that the European green crabs found at Dungeness Spit as well as those on San Juan Island and Padilla Bay may have originated from Sooke Inlet at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where a large infestation of green crabs has become well established.

After all, Sooke Inlet is physically close to areas in Puget Sound where green crabs have been found, at least when compared to infested areas along the coast. Although a large channel separates the U.S. from Canada, that might not be much of an obstacle for crab larvae, which drift with the currents.

To the surprise of many, a research project involving crab DNA showed that the green crabs in Puget Sound were NOT closely related to those in Sooke. Instead, the crabs at Dungeness Spit came from coastal populations, according to genomics work by Carolyn Tepolt of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The Sooke population is considered genetically isolated and very different, probably because it started some time ago by a small number of crabs that did not mix with others.

Lagoon Point, Whidbey Island: Blue dots are minnow traps; orange dots are larger fukui traps; large orange circles are where two European green crabs were found last year; and the yellow circle is where the one crab was found this year. // Map: Crab Team

At the same time, studies of the tidal currents in the area showed that Sooke was no more likely to be a source of crab larvae than coastal areas. Crab larvae coming from Sooke are likely to be swept toward the ocean, whereas rare conditions called “reversals” can bring larvae from the Washington Coast along the southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to a study by Elizabeth Brasseale, a graduate student in oceanography at the University of Washington. See the Crab Blog from April 25.

New efforts with Canada

Knowing that Sooke is not the source of the green crabs in Puget Sound changes the dynamic with Canada.

“It was a relief to find out that crabs (from British Columbia) were not inundating our shores,” Emily Grason told me. “If that had been the case, the necessary management action would be to throw everything at Sooke Basin.”

The cost of eradicating green crabs from Sooke would be enormous and probably would not help the situation in the U.S. On the other hand, the Canadians may learn some things from the extensive trapping program taking place in Puget Sound, which seems to be keeping the crab population in check. Sooke may be somewhat of a lost cause, but there could be hope for other B.C. inlets at risk of being invaded.

A cross-boundary task force has been discussing the green crab problem on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, an expert panel at April’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference discussed the pros and cons of international cooperation as well as political realities of dealing with the problem. Kelly Martin summarized that session for the Crab Blog on April 27.

First scientific paper on the green crab effort

The first publication addressing Puget Sound’s European green crab invasion documents the early stages of a horrific invasive species while celebrating the collaborations of hundreds of people making detection and control possible, according to Allen Pleus, coordinator of Washington’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

“If you are familiar with Crab Team, you might wonder why this scientific paper, which only covers the findings through the end of 2016, is important,” Allen wrote in the Crab Team Blog. “We have certainly been sharing news about findings through our blog, the media and other outlets.

“So, what does this publication add?” he asked. “This paper will help scientists track how European green crab has spread across the globe. Because of the rigorous review conducted on the paper by multiple experts – and believe me, it was rigorous – the information can be used to inform policy and management of this species, both here, and in other locations.”

As with most scientific papers, the information shared with the world lags behind current events, yet it reaches a depth of information that will be most helpful for those working with European green crabs, invasive species and related subjects.

Here’s the paper: “Citizen science program detects range expansion of the globallyinvasive European green crab in Washington State (USA)” (PDF 1.4 mb) in the publication “Management of Biological Invasions”

New assessment tool on the horizon

Although trapping European green crabs has been effective at locating the early stages of an invasion in Puget Sound, imagine instead taking a water sample and sending it to a lab. After a short wait, a technician using DNA techniques would tell you the likelihood of finding crabs in that location.

This is the ultimate test that I’m imagining as a new effort gets underway to identify invasive species by looking for DNA floating in the water. The technique is known as environmental DNA testing, or simply eDNA, and it is increasingly being used in freshwater to look for the presence of species of interest.

Developing a technique for saltwater adds the complexity of tides and currents moving DNA around, chemical breakdown of DNA, and determining if the DNA signal is coming from the larval form of a species or reproductive adults.

Alison Watts, an environmental engineer at the University of New Hampshire, has received a two-year, $500,000 grant to study eDNA in marine estuaries. She is collaborating with researchers at sample sites in Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire. The idea is to use eDNA techniques alongside traditional methods of biological sampling, such as seining, trapping and electrofishing.

The eDNA samples undergo both “meta-barcoding,” which can identify DNA from multiple species in a single sample, and single-species PCR amplification, which is designed to test for the presence or absence of a target species, Alison told me.

The eDNA techniques might provide an early warning of green crabs — say in South Puget Sound, where they have not been found before — but it would not provide information about the number of crabs or their physical conditions.

“We are developing and testing the methods this summer, then will validate and develop guidance materials next summer,” she said in an email. “Once the initial methods are developed, it is our hope that they will be useful for a range of applications, including early detection of green crabs or identifying their range within a system.”

For information about the grant, check out:

Hood Canal changes color again, thanks to plankton bloom

Hood Canal has changed colors again, shifting to shades of bimini green, as it did in 2016, when satellite photos showed the canal standing out starkly among all other waters in the Northwest.

Hood Canal has changed colors as a result of a plankton bloom, as shown in this aerial photo taken in Northern Hood Canal.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Washington Ecology

The color change is caused by a bloom of a specific type of plankton called a coccolithophore, which shows up in nutrient-poor waters. The single-celled organism produces shells made of calcite, which reflect light to produce the unusual color.

Observers are now waiting for the clouds to depart, so we can get new satellite images of the green waters.

The plankton bloom started June 1 in Quilcene and Dabob bays, according to Teri King of Washington Sea Grant. It came about a week earlier than last year and has since spread through Hood Canal. Observers in the Seabeck area reported seeing the bloom the past few days. The bimini green color, which gets its name from an island in the Bahamas, is especially noticeable when the sun comes out.

Coccolithophores are known for dominating other phytoplankton when there is a shortage of nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the water. We usually get an influx of nutrients when it rains, so I’m not sure how long the bloom may last. I’m told, however, that the white calcite shells, called coccoliths, can stick around after the organism has died, although they eventually sink to the bottom.

Electron microscope image of plankton Emiliania huxleyi

The species of coccolithophore in Hood Canal is believed to be Emiliania huxleyi, shown in the microscopic photo on this page. They don’t produce any known toxins harmful to people or marine life, experts say, and they can be eaten by small fish and larger zooplankton.

For additional information, click to the following:

Amusing Monday: Duck paintings help support wetland conservation

Artists possess the creative power to portray a simple bird — say a male mallard duck — in a multitude of ways, something I never really appreciated until I reviewed hundreds of duck portraits in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

The acrylic painting of mallard ducks by Bob Hautman of Delano, Minn., took first place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

Judges in the annual contest seem to prefer a super-realistic style. Each year, the winning entry is used to create a federal duck stamp, which are the stamps that waterfowl hunters must carry while hunting. They are also purchased by many people who care about conservation.

Details in the duck portraits are important, but it is also interesting to observe the landscapes that the artists place in the backgrounds and foregrounds of their pictures. Take a look at the Flickr page where 215 entries are shown in the latest contest sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eligible species for this year’s contest were the mallard, gadwall, cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal and harlequin duck.

The acrylic painting of a cinnamon teal by Greg Alexander of Ashland, Wis., took second place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

The winning entry for this year’s duck stamp was submitted by Bob Hautman of Delano, Minn., whose acrylic painting shows a pair of mallards in flight. This is Bob’s third winning entry, after two previous paintings were turned into stamps in 1997 and 2001.

Hautman comes from an artist family. His brothers, Jim and Joe, have each won the same contest five times.

“Congratulations to Bob Hautman on his win today,” said Greg Sheehan, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service when the winners were announced last fall. “He is part of a collection of talented wildlife artists whose work has helped conserve habitat not just for waterfowl, but for a vast diversity of wildlife.”

The oil painting of a blue-winged teal by Christine Clayton of Sidney, Ohio, took third place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

The Federal Duck Stamp, which will go on sale later this month, sells for $25. Proceeds, which total about $40 million a year, go for protecting wetland habitats in national wildlife refuges across the country.

Second place was an acrylic painting of a cinnamon teal by Greg Alexander of Ashland, Wis., and third place was an oil painting of a blue-winged teal by Christine Clayton of Sidney, Ohio.

By the way, Christine was the third-place winner of the National Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest in 2000, when at age 17 she entered a painting of a northern pintail.

The acrylic painting of an emperor goose by Rayen Kang of Johns Creek, Ga., took first place in the Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest. // Photo: USFWS

The winner of this year’s junior contest is Rayen Kang of Johns Creek, Ga., who submitted an acrylic painting of an emperor goose. Second place went to Daniel Billings, 17, of Gallatin, Mo., who painted a redhead in oil. Third place went to Larissa Weber, 17, of Anderson, Ind., who painted trumpeter swans in acrylic.

The Federal Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program encourages students from kindergarten through high school to explore their natural world, learning about biology and wildlife management. A $5 Junior Duck Stamp is purchased by collectors, with revenue going to support environmental education.

Orange plankton bloom is not a good sign for ecological health

If you notice an orange tint to the waters of Central Puget Sound, it’s not your imagination. It is a dense plankton bloom dominated by the dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans.

Noctiluca scintillans bloom comes ashore at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines on Monday of this week.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Noctiluca is often seen in some numbers at this time of year, but it may be a bit more intense this time around, according to Christopher Krembs, an oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology. Christopher tells me that the orange color may stick around awhile.

The orange-colored species does not produce any toxins found to be harmful to humans, but it is not exactly a friendly organism either. It often shows up in marine waters that are out of balance with nutrients or impaired in some other way. It can gobble up other plankton that feed tiny fish and other creatures, but it does not seem to provide a food supply that interests very many species — probably because of its ammonia content. Consequently, Noctiluca is often referred to as a “dead end” in the food web.

A plankton bloom at the north end of Vashon Island gets a distinct edge from the tidal currents flowing through Colvos Passage.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Ecology

I had a lot of discussions with Christopher and other plankton biologists earlier this year while writing a series of articles about the importance of plankton to the entire Puget Sound food web — right up to orcas. A primary point to the series was to describe how excessive nitrogen from human sources may be upsetting the balance in Puget Sound.

For a deeper dive into plankton, please take a look at this package of stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound titled “Nutrient Pollution,” with a special focus on plankton in the second story in this list:

Christopher Krembs manages a program that assesses water conditions throughout Puget Sound, including aerial views of the surface waters, where he often observes different types of plankton, as well as jellyfish and other creatures that provide clues to water quality. See the webpage Eyes Over Puget Sound, where he expects to post his latest report next week.

The waters in Budd Inlet turned green from a plankton bloom near Olympia.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Ecology

His flight on Monday revealed intense blooms of Noctiluca throughout Central Puget Sound, including the waters near Vashon Island.

“What is striking is the very high phytoplankton biomass in Central Sound and not so much in South Sound and other places from the air,” Christopher said in an email. “The jury is still out when the monitoring data come in.”

He’s not sure why the Noctiluca bloom is occurring right now. May was a record-dry month, he noted, and rain-fed rivers are running low. On the other hand, snow-fed rivers are running fairly high, while the mighty Fraser River in British Columbia has dropped down from its previous levels.

Rivers can bring nitrogen down from the uplands to feed the phytoplankton, which capture the energy of the sun to grow and multiply rapidly.

As Christopher points out, we need more studies focused on the base of the food web, which supports our salmon populations and ultimately thousands of species in and around Puget Sound. Clues that could help us understand how to recover Puget Sound are likely to be hidden in the water, where basic biological responses result from water chemistry and circulation patterns throughout Puget Sound.

As a result of the current Noctiluca bloom, the Department of Ecology has posted a discussion as part of its “Puget Sound Nutrient Watch” series on the blog ECOconnect. Efforts to reduce nutrient loading in Puget Sound are being discussed in a workgroup called the Puget Sound Nutrient Forum, which anyone can follow online or in person.

World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

The last time I spoke to Peter was in 2004 (Kitsap Sun, Jan 31,2004) when he was working for Geoscience Australia and presented his latest findings on coral reefs to audiences in Kingston and Poulsbo. His dad, Alfred Harris, still lives in Poulsbo, while his mom, Sydney Cotton, lives in Silverdale.

For the past four years, Peter has been working in Norway as managing director at GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. He heads a staff of about 30 people, including experts from various countries.

By the way, GRID stands for Global Resource Information Database, and Arendal is a community about the size of Bremerton, where Peter has purchased a home and agreed to stay on with GRID another four years.

I asked him what his team concluded about the three biggest problems facing the world’s oceans. He said the group, after much consideration, decided that what rose to the top —above ocean acidification, chemical contamination, noise pollution and others — were coral reefs, plastics and overfishing.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” he said. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress. They will keep dying off.”

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

Warm water causes the coral colonies to reject their symbiotic algae, leaving them white in a process called coral “bleaching.” They can recover if cooler water returns and there is enough time between bleaching events, he said. But it takes about 10 years for corals to recover, and the Great Barrier Reef has undergone bleaching for three years in a row. Vast areas may never recover.

Coral reefs provide habitats for huge numbers of marine species, and their loss will be an environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. Even if humans eventually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological diversity may be lost in many areas.

“The only solution is to try to preserve coral reefs in locations where they are less susceptible,” Peter said.

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

“More and more people are using more and more plastic,” he said, and some of it eventually reaches the ocean. It can come from stormwater, litter, fishing activities, garbage picked up by the wind and outright dumping. Much of it comes from developing countries with inadequate waste-treatment systems.

“It seems like many people and countries see this as a problem that can be addressed, like the ozone problem,” he said. “It all comes down to how you deal with plastic in your own life.”

The third problem he mentioned was overfishing, which has the potential to drive some populations to the brink of extinction.

While some countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are doing much better in managing their fisheries, many developing countries are stuck in a cycle of needing more fish to feed a hungry population while generating revenue from fisheries, he said. Taking more and more fish from the ocean will lead to population collapse.

Some of the greatest concerns are on the high seas, where there is little control over what anyone does, he said. Some fishermen are targeting seamounts, where large numbers of various fish species congregate.

“When fishermen find a good spot out in the ocean it is usually a spawning aggregation,” he said, adding that removing those fish can affect growth of entire populations.

“One solution is to put a moratorium on high seas fishing altogether,” he said, adding that it would take a major international effort, but people should recognize that the high seas is the least productive part of the ocean.

GEO-6, the U.N. report on the world environment, is scheduled for publication before the end of the year.

Through GRID-Arendal, Peter keeps in touch with many environmental issues, which can be reviewed on the foundation’s “Activities” page as well as its “Publications” and “Graphics” pages.

Peter’s world travels are as interesting as his research. After graduating from North Kitsap High School in 1976, he went on to receive an oceanography degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

“I think I have always had an interest in the ocean,” he said, noting that his father built sailboats as a hobby and raced them on Puget Sound.

At the age of 12, he took a course at the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (now SEA Discovery Center). After that, he took advantage of every opportunity to visit the marine animals in tanks at the center and to go out on tide-pool walks on Puget Sound.

“I was really captured by the image of how this place was formed,” he said. “I came to understand that there is a reason for everything you see. Puget Sound was once under an ice sheet. The gravel is glacial till. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”

While other places, such as Chile and Norway, have waterways that look similar to Puget Sound, they often lie over rocky outcroppings rather than gravelly substrate. Puget Sound is truly unique, he added.

“When you travel the world, you realize how rare and precious it is,” he said. “There are no other places like it.”

At the UW, one of Peter’s professors, Dick Sternberg, convinced him to do his graduate work at the University of Wales in Great Britain, where he could work under the late Michael Collins, co-editor with Sternberg of the journal “Continental Shelf Research.”

While there, Peter met his future wife Ellen, an Australian native, and he decided to take a job at the University of Sydney, where he taught oceanography and conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef. When he joined the Australian government, he was required to become an Australian citizen, though he maintained his American citizenship. He worked for Geoscience Australia for 20 years, becoming head of the Antarctic marine and coastal programs, before moving to Norway in 2014.

He and his wife have three grown children, two still living in Australia. Eleri, the oldest, recently took a job with the online political cartoon magazine “The Nib” in Portland, Ore. With a grandchild now on the way, Peter says he has even more reasons to return to the Northwest.

Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

There’s nothing like spending some relaxing time in a natural environment. It does a body good — mentally and physically — to go into new or familiar surroundings while basking in the full-bodied sights and sounds of a forest, a stream or a marine shoreline.

We are fortunate in the Puget Sound region to have easy and free (or low-cost) access to all sorts of natural places. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of wildlife and incorporate the sighting into our memory of that place.

What we don’t normally see, however, are the natural behaviors of wildlife away from people, because the presence of humans often changes what they are doing — nor would we want to impose on their lives any more than we already do.

The best nature photographers learn how to stay out of the way, often spending hours, days or weeks waiting quietly to capture an amazing image of an animal or group of animals worthy of sharing with the rest of us.

I’m taking a long-winded approach to make a point about live wildlife videos, brought to a wide Internet audience by placing cameras in strategic locations — often before the animals arrive. All sorts of creatures are left to do their own things as the cameras spy on their activities. While you might not experience the smell of a great blue heron nest by sitting in front of your computer, it is great to know that you can watch all day long without disturbing the animals.

I sometimes wonder what the animals would do if they knew they were being watched. Would they put on a show, mug for the camera or just go and hide somewhere else? For the sake of the viewer and the wildlife, it is better for us to stay out of sight.

The technology for live video cameras has gotten better and better. The images sent over the Internet are generally crisper than ever before, and many places use microphones to pick up the sounds. Meanwhile, the number of live feeds has expanded to more places all over the world, not just in zoos and aquariums. A few cameras have been shut down for lack of money to maintain them.

Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, has become the go-to website for connecting people with animals via live webcams. As I write this, the number of live video feeds listed on the website totals 161, although the number changes frequently as a result of shifts in animal activity as well as technical issues. Scroll down below the video player for text messaging related to each camera as well as notes from video operators and online observers. Those who maintain and sponsor the specific camera networks are recognized.

The Explore.org website has a fairly consistent format from one camera to the next. Functions allow viewers to take and save snapshots of an interesting scene. Instructions on that feature and many other features are provided in a 30-page “Website Handbook” (PDF 7.2 mb).

The first video on this page shows a bald eagle nest near a trout hatchery in Decorah, Iowa. The young eagles are now nine weeks old and have grown to the size of their mother, who is often gone from the nest, but she brings back plenty of food, according to observers.

The second video is mounted in an ideal location to watch marine mammals in Blackney Pass in British Columbia. The site is the headquarters of OrcaLab, managed by Paul Spong and Helena Symonds on Hanson Island. This is one of the primary travel routes for Northern Resident killer whales as they make their way through Johnstone Strait. When night approaches, this location provides a view of some spectacular sunsets.

Chesapeake Conservancy operates several wildlife cameras, including the Osprey Cam featured in the third video. Observers have been following the activities of the nesting pair, Tom and Audrey, who have been at the site on Maryland’s eastern shore since 2009. Audrey laid three eggs this year. One was not viable, but the other two chicks hatched about a week apart in late May.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, shown in the fourth video within a burrow. Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station on the island where the puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887. The birds were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland and now more than 50 pairs nest on the island. Four live videos are set up to show the puffins.

Always great to watch are the brown bears at Brooks Falls in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, shown in the last video on this page. The bears come down to the falls to catch salmon trying to make their way upstream. The bears’ fishing activity reaches its peak in July or August. Observers say they occasionally catch sight of a wolf or a moose.

Other great wildlife cams:

Europe may soon launch wide-ranging solutions to plastic pollution

Taking on the enormous problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, the European Union is on track to ban single-use items made of plastic, while communities in Washington state slowly adopt bans on plastic bags.

Straws are listed as a problem plastic.
Photo: Horia Varlan, Wikimedia Commons

The European Commission is targeting specific plastic products that constitute 70 percent of the items found among marine debris lost in the sea and along the shoreline. Cotton swabs, plastic cutlery, plates, drinking cups and straws are among the items that would be banned outright, because non-plastic alternatives are available.

The proposal announced this week goes well beyond those items, however, calling for a 90-percent reduction in plastic drink-bottle waste, possibly through a deposit system. In addition, plans are underway for new waste-disposal programs, ongoing cleanups, and educational efforts designed to reduce the purchase of and encourage the proper disposal of food containers, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons and fishing gear. Manufacturers of plastic products would help fund those various programs, according to the proposal.

See news releases and related documents from the European Commission:

In 2015, the E.U. took action to ban most plastic bags with the E.U. Plastic Bags Directive (PDF 233 kb).

The new legislation, which must be approved by the E.U Parliament and Council, goes far beyond anything being proposed in the United States, but it seems that awareness of the marine debris problem has been growing among Americans.

The June issue of National Geographic magazine is devoted to the marine debris problem in a package of stories called “Planet or Plastic?”

“Nine million tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year,” writes National Geographic reporter Laura Parker, who reports that ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Among the losses are 700 different species, including endangered species.

“Some are harmed visibly — strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings,” Parker said. “Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

“On Hawaii’s Big Island, on a beach that seemingly should have been pristine — no paved road leads to it — I walked ankle-deep through microplastics,” she said. “They crunched like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as a looming catastrophe, worth mentioning in the same breath as climate change.”

Unlike climate change, there are no “ocean trash deniers” — at least not so far, Parker notes. “To do something about it, we don’t have to remake our planet’s entire energy system.”

I believe Parker’s story could be eye-opening for many people. National Geographic is certainly concerned about the plastics problem, as the magazine launches a multi-year campaign against plastics starting tomorrow. The magazine will take steps itself, first by eliminating its plastic mailing wrapper. The organization is encouraging everyone to take a pledge to reduce plastic waste. Other organizations leading the charge include the Plastic Pollution Coaliton, which even built a page around the NatGeo information.

While there is no legislation to impose a nationwide ban on plastics, California and Hawaii have statewide bans on plastic grocery bags and are looking at other items. (See Monday’s L.A. Times.) Many local communities across the country have taken various actions. In Washington state, King and Thurston counties have banned plastic bags, and the idea is under consideration throughout Kitsap County, where the city of Bainbridge Island has imposed such a ban.

Kitsap Sun reporter Chris Henry does a nice job outlining the situation in Kitsap, where county leaders would like to see the ban imposed by all city governments at the same time a new county ban goes into effect — perhaps with some action by the end of this year. Port Orchard officials held a town hall forum on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

To learn more about plastic pollution in Puget Sound, check out the slideshows and videos from last year’s Plastics Summit coordinated by Zero Waste Washington.

With regard to the European Union, the proposal is expected to reduce Europe’s littering by more than half for the 10 single-use items targeted by the proposal. The monetary savings in environmental damages is estimated at 22 billion Euros — or about $26 billion in U.S. dollars — by 2030. Consumer savings is estimated at $6.5 billion Euros — or $7.6 billion. Carbon emissions are expected to be reduced by an equivalent 3.4 million tonnes — or 3.7 million U.S. tons — in that time frame. (See news release from the E.U.)

Targeted items are cotton buds (swabs); cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers; sticks for balloons and reduction of balloon waste; food take-out containers; drink cups; beverage bottles; cigarette butts; bags; wrappers for candy, cookies, etc.; and wipes and sanitary products. Fishing gear is on a separate action list.

Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, stressed the importance of European nations working together for solutions, including banning some products, finding new alternatives for others and getting people to properly dispose of plastic to avoid pollution. He wants the E.U. to lead the way in cleaning up the world’s oceans, and he downplayed any inconvenience that people may experience.

“You can still organize a picnic, drink a cocktail and clean your ears, just like before,” he was quoted as saying in a New York Times article. “And you get the added bonus that when you do so, you can have a clear conscience about the environmental impact of your actions.”

Amusing Monday: ‘Raw water’ craze strikes a nerve with comedians

While world health officials are trying to bring clean drinking water to sickly communities around the globe, there appears to be an upstart movement promoting so-called “raw water,” which is said to be considerably better for your health than pure clean water.

Raw water, by definition, is left untreated and reported to contain living organisms that provide health benefits. One brand, aptly named Live Water, is selling for more than $6 a gallon. You are advised to drink it within a month to prevent it from turning green, presumably from the growth of organisms.

The movement, which seems to encourage people to go out in search of natural springs, grew rapidly in California with the help of a guru-like character who changed his name from Chris Sanborn to Mukhande Singh. The whole story has been just too good of a setup for comedians to ignore.

There are some very amusing lines in the videos shown on this page, but I thought I should begin with a video that actually puts the issue into a serious context. Reporter Gabrielle Karol of KOIN-TV in Portland produced an investigative report two weeks ago. She found that the source of “Live Water” is a bottling and distribution plant in Oregon.

The raw water craze is a concept that can be shaped to any comedic style — from (in order of videos on this page) Jordan Klepper, Desi Lydic of The Daily Show and Steven Colbert.

The fifth video shows a costumed Jeff Holiday, appearing as Hemlock Moonwolf. Jeff is a YouTube regular who describes himself as a “humble neuroscience student using his free time to debunk bad science, discuss current issues with logic and have a good time.”

Even NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” radio show got in on the humor with a limerick:

I head to the spring with a straw,
Sip a glacier that’s fresh off the thaw.
No fluoride or filter
Will throw me off kilter.
I only drink water that’s ___.

Guest participant Andrea Chabot: “Raw? … What?”

Host Peter Sagal: “Move over, kombucha and turmeric powder; there’s a new reason to hate millennial hipsters. It’s called raw water. Unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized water. Who hasn’t had a glass of water and thought, this is nice, but it needs more E. coli?

“You see, these risk-taking, hip millennials do not want boring, safe tap water. No, they want to know that every sip might be their last. Apparently, they say taste is a big factor here. One person said, quote, “it has a vaguely mild sweetness, a nice smooth mouthfeel, nothing that overwhelms the flavor profile,” unquote. Not to worry — I want to assure you that person was immediately slapped in the face.”

Tamar Haspel, who writes the blog “Unearthed” for the Washington Post, says, “I think the biggest reason that people are willing to pay $6 a gallon for water that comes straight to them from deep in the earth’s bowels is that they are suspicious of the water that comes straight to them from the kitchen faucet. It’s the chemicals and the drug residues and leached lead and the duck poop…”

She goes on to discuses what can be found in raw water and the potential health benefits or lack thereof.

If I can offer one final video, check out at the bottom by ZDoggMD, who is a physician and “purveyor of the finest medical satire.” He puts a personal spin on the issue before relating the raw water movement to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological term defined as “a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is (Wikipedia).”

Whoa there, Dr. Zogg. That’s getting a little deep, but I do like the line he offers on his website: “Drinking raw water? Let’s party like it’s 1699!”

ZDoggMD admits that he actually grew up drinking raw water, like many people in Kitsap County who drink untreated water from a private well or a small water system. Well water meets the definition of “raw,” I guess, but water that comes from a deep underground supply is unlikely to have much of the algae, viruses and bacteria that some people seem to crave.

Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

Jeff noted that the guidelines have been endorsed by every commercial whale-watch operator who regularly takes people out to see whales. Every whale-watch boat captain must pass a test to certify personal knowledge of the guidelines, which were adopted in March, he added.

Jeff said his organization would like all boaters to understand and follow the guidelines. Going further, he hopes the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines and its website can be updated as well.

“One of the most important things in there — and we have been doing this for some time — is the slow speed around the whales,” he said. “That minimizes the sound coming from our vessels.”

He explained that new studies show that boats moving at high speed produce far more engine noise than boats moving slowly. Lower underwater sound levels might help the whales communicate better and improve their ability to locate fish through echolocation.

The new guidelines extend the go-slow zone around whales from 0.25 mile to 1 kilometer (0.62 mile). In this zone, boats should never go faster than 7 knots.

Time limits are a new provision. No vessel should ever be around a group of whales more than an hour, according to the guidelines, or 30 minutes when more than 10 commercial whale-watch boats are nearby.

Years ago, the Southern Resident orcas were the only show in town, Jeff said. Now there may be transient orcas, humpback whales and gray whales at various times, along with other wildlife. That offers a variety of viewing opportunities. Unfortunately, he added, it is now rare to see a Southern Resident, which means they are not finding food in their traditional areas.

In fact, he noted, so far this month the whales have not been seen in areas around the San Juan Islands. If we go through the month of May without a single Southern Resident sighting, it will be the first year ever that whales were not seen in May — going back to at least the 1970s, when researchers started keeping records.

Communication, coordination and respect for other whale-watch boats is emphasized in the new guidelines. For example, when approaching an area where whales are being watched, boat operators should move to the outside of vessels in the area and adopt a course of travel parallel to that of the whales.

The distance from all killer whales remains 200 yards on the U.S. side of the border, consistent with state and federal regulations. The distance is 100 yards from other whales. In Canada, the prescribed distance is 200 meters from the Southern Residents and 100 meters from other whales. In all cases, additional distances should be added if warranted by the whales’ behavior, according to the guidelines.

Special provisions are imposed near the Race Rocks Marine Protected Area and the west side of San Juan Island. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently asked all boaters — including sport fishers — to voluntarily stay at least one-fourth mile off the west side of San Juan Island and a half-mile from Lime Kiln Lighthouse. (See Water Ways, May 9.) That distance to shore has been in the guidelines, although the no-go area was extended south along the shoreline.

As always, sonar, depth sounders and fish finders should be shut off when a vessel is in the vicinity of whales, according to the guidelines, but new research suggests that this issue should be emphasized more than ever, Jeff said.

He said some of the guidelines should be incorporated into regulations or state law, as proposed by Sen. Kevin Ranker’s Orca Protection Act,. The proposed legislation underwent multiple lives during the last legislative session but failed to make it into law, as I described in Water Ways, Feb. 23. Now, potential legal changes are under consideration by the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

As for the Canada’s upcoming fishing restrictions, partial closures are being proposed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands and areas near the mouth of the Fraser River. Additional measures along the coast of British Columbia may include harvest limits, size limits and size restrictions as well as area closures, according to a news release issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In announcing the restrictions, Minister of Fisheries Dominic LeBlanc, made this statement:

“Southern Resident Killer Whales need our help in order to survive and recover. Together with my colleague, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, we have determined that the species faces an imminent threat to its survival and recovery, and we need to keep taking concrete action.

“Today I am pleased to announce new fishery management measures to increase prey availability and reduce disturbances to these whales and we continue to work hard on additional actions to be put in place soon.”

In a separate announcement, the government said it would provide $9.5 million for eight projects to restore habitat for chinook salmon to help Southern Resident killer whales. The funding is part of a $1.5-billion effort to protect Canada’s coasts and waterways called the Oceans Protection Plan.

Salish Sea photo contest emphasizes local species, habitats and activities

I’m eager to see the photographs judged as the top 100 in the Salish Sea nature photography competition, called “Salish Sea in Focus.” If you have a favorite photo that tells a story or captures the essence of an animal or a place in our inland waterway, you have until June 4 to submit your image.

Kelp // Photo: Pete Naylor

I’ve featured many nature photography contests in this blog, but I don’t believe we’ve ever had one focused exclusively on the Salish Sea. I hope everyone takes a little time to consider whether a favorite photograph deserves special recognition. The competition is organized by The SeaDoc Society.

Categories are:

  • Birds and mammals of the Salish Sea
  • Fish of the Salish Sea
  • ‘Scapes of the Salish Sea
  • Invertebrates, plants, and kelp of the Salish Sea
  • People of the Salish Sea

The rules actually allow a photograph to be taken elsewhere if the subject can be associated with the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia in Canada and connecting waterways, such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Be sure to read the rules carefully, along with specifications for submission.

The entry fee is $10 per photo or $50 for six photos, with proceeds going to SeaDoc’s mission of research, education and stewardship.

The Grand Prize winner will receive $1,000, followed by $500 for first place in each category; $250 for second place in each category; and $100 for third place in each category. Among entrants under 18, special first-, second- and third-place winners will be chosen.

Where is the Salish Sea? Map shows watershed boundaries. // Map: The SeaDoc Society

Some 100 finalists will be named, and those photos will be displayed on the contest website and featured on SeaDoc’s homepage.

A reception and awards presentation is planned for Oct. 4 at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, where the winning photographs will be displayed.

I’m hoping to see pictures that convey the uniqueness of Puget Sound, including marine and terrestrial animals in their natural settings, such as streams, estuaries, salt marshes and so on. Good luck to everyone who enters.

On a related topic, the end of May is the deadline for The Nature Conservancy’s 2018 Photo Contest, which promotes connections between people and nature. Some of the judges’ favorites, with comments, can be viewed on The Nature Conservancy’s Instagram page.