Category Archives: Sea life

Amusing Monday: NOAA’s top photos, videos and stories

A photograph of a tiny orange octopus was the most popular image last year among all the photographs posted to Instagram by NOAA Fisheries, the agency formally called the National Marine Fisheries Service. More than 2,000 people “liked” the picture and many more viewed it from among more than 150 top photographs posted last year by NOAA Fisheries’ Communications shop on its Instagram page.

A baby octopus found on an autonomous reef monitoring structure. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: James Morioka/NOAA

The octopus photo was taken during a NOAA expedition to assess the health of coral reefs in the Pacific Remote Islands, which had undergone a massive die-off in 2016 and 2017 caused by excessive warm water. The tiny octopus was discovered on an “autonomous reef monitoring structure” used to measure the recovery of ocean ecosystems. For details about the voyage, see NOAA’s story “Research Expedition to Assess Coral Reef Conditions and Recovery from Mass Bleaching.”

Another popular NOAA photo from last year was a picture of a large number of green sea turtles basking along the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Green sea turtles bask on a beach in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Marylou Staman/NOAA

Starting in 1973, NOAA biologists have traveled to these remote islands to monitor nesting activity among the turtles. They work day and night, counting and marking turtles with unique numbers for identity. Citizens who spot numbered turtles are asked to report them. For more details, check out the story “Honu Count 2018: Help us find numbered sea turtles in Hawaii.”

A video that tells a story of sea turtles also came out among the most popular videos produced by NOAA last year. The story of how their populations are changing is fascinating, and turtles always get attention from readers and viewers, according to NOAA officials.

“One of the really interesting things about sea turtles is their sex is determined by the incubation temperature of the eggs, with cooler temperatures producing more males and warmer temperatures producing more females,” says Michael Jensen, a marine biologist with Ocean Associates.

Jensen, working on a turtle study with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, is the primary voice on the video, in which he talks about how warmer waters in portions of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are producing about 99 percent female turtles. These findings are based on new genetic studies that track where the turtles are born.

“It’s important to remember that they’ve been around for a hundred million years,” Jensen said. “They’ve outlasted the dinosaurs. They’ve adapted to a changing climate through that whole time. However, the climate is changing faster now than it has ever. The question we are all asking now is: Will they be able to adapt, and will they be able to adapt fast enough. We certainly hope so.”

Humpback whale // Photo: NOAA

One of NOAA’s top stories of last year, as always, was a focus on whales. Communication folks put together some interesting facts for Whale Week, including this one: “Male humpback whales found in U.S. waters sing complex songs in winter breeding areas … that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard miles away.” OK, maybe most of us already knew that, but for each of the 10 whales mentioned, you will find links to a lot more details, such as with humpbacks.

If you are interested in Puget Sound, I would point you toward the “marine mammal” section of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Blue shark // Photo: Mark Conlin/NOAA

NOAA’s number-one story of 2018 was one put together for Shark Week: “12 shark facts that may surprise you.” Here’s a fact that may not be as obvious as it seems:

“Blue sharks are really blue. The blue shark displays a brilliant blue color on the upper portion of its body and is normally snowy white beneath. The mako and porbeagle sharks also exhibit a blue coloration, but it is not nearly as brilliant as that of a blue shark. In life, most sharks are brown, olive, or grayish.”

Another popular “story,” which is actually listed as 16 separate stories, involves issues of sustainable seafood, with mention of National Seafood Month in October. Stories address sustainable labeling, consumer preferences, cuts of fish, fishermen perspectives, species recovery, aquaculture, economics, climate change and descriptions of a variety of individual fish species.

The list of NOAA Fisheries’ top stories, photos and videos can be found on the agency’s news website.

Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I’m hoping that communication with the Russian research vessel carrying these scientists will be adequate to learn about how they are faring along the way, as they traverse 6,000 miles of ocean in a back-and-forth pattern.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before, considering the breadth of work we will be doing in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter,” said Dick Beamish, a longtime Canadian salmon researcher who organized the expedition.

Fernando Lessa, who photographed a person releasing chinook salmon, was named the winner in a photo contest kicking off the International Year of the Salmon.
Photo: Fernando Lessa

The IYS is also fairly unique, involving numerous salmon-rearing countries. This year, 2019, is the “focal year,” but outreach, research and analysis will continue through 2022.

“The extraordinary life histories of salmon in the Northern Hemisphere exposes them to many environmental and human-caused factors influencing their health and abundance,” states the webpage for the campaign. “We want to bring people together, share and develop knowledge, raise awareness and take action.”

Goals of the IYS include:

  • Developing a greater understanding of what drives salmon abundance,
  • Encouraging scientists, decision-makers and the public to identify and start solving the problems that salmon face,
  • Working to implement conservation and restoration strategies for salmon,
  • Inspiring a new generation of people committed to saving salmon on an international scale, and
  • Improving awareness of the ecological, social, cultural and economic importance of salmon.

To kick off the Year of the Salmon, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission held a photo contest last fall. The theme of “Salmon and people in a changing world” matched the theme of the IYS. The winning photo, shown on this page, is titled “Releasing some chinook fry in Surrey!” by photographer Fernando Lessa, a resident of North Vancouver, B.C.

Events scheduled this year include:

Salmon Recovery Conference: April 8-9, Greater Tacoma Convention Center. The conference brings together those involved in salmon recovery in Washington state with the idea of sharing best practices and improving local recovery plans.

The Second North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission IYS Workshop: May 18-20, Portland, Ore. The workshop will focus on the latest information on salmon, including their migration, distribution, growth and survival.

World Salmon Forum: Aug. 21-23, Seattle. The forum aims to bring together scientists, advocates and foundations with an interest in understanding the science and improving the management of wild salmon in both the Pacific and Atlantic regions.

Coho Festival, 2019: Sept. 8, West Vancouver, B.C. The festival, put on by the Coho Society, is a celebration of returning salmon and a fund-raiser for salmon-restoration projects.

To recognize that salmon are cherished on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, I’ve included a video featuring George Eustice, Great Britain’s Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Many organizations have proposed specific projects this year, including some mentioned on the IYS website.

Documents and websites related to IYS:

Learning the fate of Springer’s stick, a key to an orca rescue

When is a medical intervention appropriate for a sick or ailing killer whale?

It’s a complicated question, as I learned by interviewing a variety of experts in a two-part series just published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

One aspect of the story that I found interesting was how a simple tree branch helped to make a connection between humans and a lonely orca named Springer. If you have read my story, you might be interested in how the stick played an ongoing role after the rescue.

The question of medical intervention with wild killer whales has become more urgent with an ongoing drop in the population of the critically endangered southern resident orcas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, the world watched as 4-year-old Scarlet, a female orca designated J50, became emaciated and eventually died. Medical experts tried unsuccessfully to help her, and they are still debating whether they did too much or too little.

In contrast, we have the story of Springer, or A73, an orphan killer whale who was successfully rescued from Puget Sound, nursed back to health and returned to her family in Northern British Columbia.

Differences between the two cases are stark. No doubt the biggest difference is that Springer was all alone, whereas Scarlet stayed with her close-knit family. Anything done to Scarlet, helpful or not, had effects on all the orcas around her.

As I learned while talking to folks about Springer, the lonely whale found an attachment to humans through a stick, which served as both a back scratcher and a toy. The stick became the key to getting a blood sample from a moving whale, and the blood sample was essential to moving ahead with the rescue, as I explained in the story.

What happened to the stick after Springer was captured and taken to a net pen for rehab?

Dr. Pete Schroeder, a veterinarian who helped get the blood sample, told me the stick stayed with the whale in the net pen. Sometimes people working with her would bring out the stick after she ate her meal of fish. It was a type of reward, Pete said. He calls the stick a “transitional object,” a term from psychology for an item that brings comfort.

“She loved that stick,” Pete said. “She swam up to it, recognized it and did 360s around it.”

The stick also went with Springer to Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island, where she was released to her family calling to her through the water.

A First Nations dance group, called the Le-La-La Dancers, is known for performing traditional Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced kwa kwa key wok) dances, representing the First Nations culture of the North Vancouver Island region. One dance is enhanced with a unique five-foot-long mask of a killer whale. The dancer’s moves — up and down, and side to side — represent the diving, breaching and swimming of a killer whale. Check out the video on this page.

As Pete recalled, “They used that special orca mask in a ceremony as we handed the stick over to the First Nations band. We hoped that they could use it to somehow influence Springer’s homecoming to her pod.”

After Springer was released from the net pen on Hanson Island, she swam out to her pod, but she did not stay with the whales. Slow to integrate with her own kind, she approached fishing boats and other vessels, even as the whale researchers asked boaters not to interact with her.

“We knew we had a problem,” Pete said, “and we were asked by the First Nations people to attend a meeting.”

The researchers were told about the history and culture of the native people and the spiritual relationships with the animals of the region, especially the killer whales.

George Taylor, who leads the Le-La-La Dancers, said a special ceremony was held for Springer using the killer whale mask and the stick. The dance with the mask has been performed many times, George told me. It represents the transformation of a killer whale into a man.

The “sacred stick,” as George calls it, was brought into the ceremonial dance to revisit the connection between Springer and the people who knew her. George has long felt a spiritual connection to killer whales, a connection that started years ago when he was approached by orcas during a fishing trip.

“The killer whales came and swam around me,” he said. “It seemed like they knew who I was.”

Some things are too mysterious to explain with science, Pete said. For whatever reason, the timing of the ceremony involving the stick coincided with Springer’s permanent break with the humans and a return to more natural ways.

“After the ceremony,” Pete recalled, “she stayed with her pod and never approached humans again.”

George says he does not know what happened to the stick after that.

Springer stories: Read “Pod reunion: Waters of home welcome Springer,” July 14th, 2002

Petition seeks upgrades to Puget Sound sewage treatment plants

UPDATE, Feb. 12
Northwest Environmental Advocates has taken its case to court in an effort to obtain a new Washington state sewage-treatment standard under AKART — “All Known, Available and Reasonable Treatment.” For information about the case, refer to the NWEA news release and the lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court.
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An environmental group, Northwest Environmental Advocates, is calling on the Washington Department of Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee to invoke a 1945 law in hopes of forcing cities and counties to improve their sewage-treatment plants.

Large ribbons of the plankton Noctiluca can be seen in this photo taken at Poverty Bay near Federal Way on June 28 last year. Excess nitrogen can stimulate plankton growth, leading to low-oxygen conditions.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Department of Ecology

In a petition to Ecology, the group says the state agency should require cities and counties to upgrade their plants to “tertiary treatment” before the wastewater gets discharged into Puget Sound. Such advanced treatment would remove excess nitrogen along with some toxic chemicals that create problems for sea life, according to Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, based in Portland.

Most sewage-treatment plants in the region rely on “secondary treatment,” which removes most solids but does little to reduce nitrogen or toxic chemicals. Secondary treatment is an outdated process, Nina told me, adding that Ecology needs to lead the way to a more advanced treatment technology.

“It’s a travesty that cities around Puget Sound continue to use 100-year-old sewage-treatment technology when cities across the nation have demonstrated that solutions are available and practical,” she said.

According to Nina, state law requires the use of “all known, available and reasonable treatment,” or AKART for short. Secondary treatment is the current AKART standard of treatment, she said, but tertiary treatment is known, available and reasonable — and it should become the new AKART standard.

The petition to Ecology (PDF 793 kb), filed in November, was denied earlier this month.

“Although Ecology has decided to deny your petition, we share your concerns regarding existing nutrient impacts and dissolved oxygen impairments within Puget Sound,” states the response (857 kb) signed by Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “However, Ecology does not agree that revising (state regulations) to define AKART as tertiary treatment … is a reasonable approach to address Puget Sound water quality impairments.”

Tertiary treatment is “neither affordable nor necessary for all wastewater treatment plants,” the Ecology director says in the letter, adding that Ecology’s approach is to set effluent limits for each discharger at levels that avoid water quality violations.

A major effort, called the Puget Sound Nutrient Source Reduction Project is using a computer model to look at the effects of nitrogen releases from various sewage-treatment plants at current rates of loading and to consider what would happen if tertiary treatment were installed at specific problem locations.

Meanwhile, future discharge permits issued by Ecology will consider nitrogen loading and require treatment plant operators to evaluate the effects of potential nitrogen-reduction targets, Maia noted.

Preliminary studies showed that if nitrogen-removal equipment were installed at the five largest plants in Puget Sound, the population could double without increasing nitrogen loading. Installing the equipment at all treatment plants in Puget Sound could lead to a 40-percent reduction in nitrogen, according to information I reviewed for a series of stories last year in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Taking the next step before considering a possible lawsuit, Northwest Environmental Advocates appealed to Gov. Inslee this week to overturn Ecology’s finding and support a requirement that all discharges to Puget Sound meet the higher level of treatment. Check out the appeal petition (PDF 217 kb).

Noctiluca scintillans bloom at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines recorded June 4 of last year.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Tertiary treatment is being used in some areas of Puget Sound where excess nitrogen has produced massive plankton blooms, creating low-oxygen conditions that can be deadly to sea life. The Olympia region in South Puget Sound is one example. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Excess nitrogen in Puget Sound can trigger massive plankton blooms, which can lead to deadly low-oxygen conditions for fish and other marine life.

Other than sewage-treatment plants, sources of nitrogen include fertilizers from farm fields and septic systems in rural areas, as well as natural sources such as decomposing vegetation, nitrogen-releasing plants and salmon that have spawned and died.

The greatest obstacle to upgrading all 87 sewage-treatment plants in Puget Sound is cost, according to local and state officials who peg the total costs of sewer upgrades in the billions of dollars.

The largest sewage facility in Puget Sound is King County’s West Point plant in Seattle, which has no room to grow, according to county officials. To upgrade the plant to tertiary treatment would require that new equipment be installed elsewhere, with the sewage piped to the new plant.

Nina Bell said if the state declared that tertiary treatment was “known, available and reasonable” under the AKART requirement, then individual treatment facilities could seek a variance for such hardships, or at least be given adequate time to design and install the equipment.

“It may be difficult,” she said, “but difficult translates to using different approaches to the problem. Getting a rule change is the first step to making this a priority. The state makes all sorts of decisions that cost large amounts of money, including stadiums and such. It takes leadership to get something done.”

When the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, secondary treatment became the requirement for most facilities across the country. New sewage-treatment plants were required in many areas. At first, the federal government offered grants of 90 percent for construction, leaving local governments to pick up the remaining 10 percent. Later, when those grants expired, Washington state launched its own program with 50 percent grants.

The value of fish, shellfish and recreation that results from having a healthy Puget Sound cannot be overlooked, Nina said. “Like all things, Puget Sound requires maintenance.”

Tertiary-treatment systems are designed to remove nitrogen, Nina said. But studies have shown that they can also remove some level of toxic chemicals, including medicines, personal-care products and other “contaminants of emerging concern” that currently go unregulated.

She cited an Ecology study (PDF 9.7 mb), which showed that secondary treatment systems were able to reduce 21 percent of the 172 compounds tested to levels below reporting limits. But advanced nutrient-removal systems, such as tertiary treatment, were able to clean up 53 percent of the chemicals.

Reducing those toxic compounds in Puget Sound would provide benefits for all species, including highly contaminated salmon and orcas, she said.

The AKART standard, adopted as state policy in 1945, was envisioned to keep the waters of the state clean, Nina said. It only makes sense to use the latest technology in a reasonable way. At this point, she added, it would be better late than never.

Amusing Monday: Silly children’s songs about creatures in the sea

“Riding on a Lobster Tail” is a live show produced by singer/songwriter/actor Angela Woodhull of Gainesville, Fla. The program, designed to educate children, comes in two versions: a large stage show with singers, dancers and musicians and a one-person storytelling, sing-along show.

The story revolves around a family aboard a cruise ship who learns about a a variety of sea creatures that they encounter. “Queen Angelina,” as Angela is known in her stage life, tells the story while singing about the various animals.

I discovered at least 15 songs written for the show as I searched for music to fit with the “Water Ways” theme of this blog. See the YouTube search page for “Riding on a Lobster Tail.”

I learned that Angela has produced programs for educating children that go far beyond marine creatures to other stories of nature to issues of health and everyday living. In all, she has written more than 300 songs, including down-to-earth songs about getting your ears pierced at the mall and taking care of head lice to wacky songs about populating Mars with potato salad and a kid with two left shoes. Check out Angela’s YouTube channel with about 100 videos.

“I don’t know where these songs come from,” she said in a news release. “I think they are spiritual gifts.”

One evening, a song entered her head without warning and she pulled into the parking lot at a closed shopping center in Forsyth, Mo., to capture the song on paper before it disappeared. A police officer pulled up and demanded to know what she was doing.

After she explained, the cop said, “Well then, let’s hear that song.” And so it was that Angela launched into “The Cow Song” for the very first time, with a chorus of “Moo, moo, moos!” The officer kept his flashlight directed to the singer’s face and never even cracked a smile. Listen to “The Cow Song” for yourself and see if you can figure out how the officer remained unamused.

Angela Woodhull first introduced her comedy music at nursing homes, then moved on to sing-alongs for college students before focusing on children.

“When children dance and laugh,” she said, “they’re more likely to remember the ABC’s of good nutrition, health and fitness – and have fun!”

For information, visit the website “Celebrate Life Arts.” One can contact Angela by email, celebratelifearts@yahoo.com.

Here are songs from the show “Riding on a Lobster Tail.”

Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

A letter from Lawrence Solomon, secretary of the Lummi Nation, outlines the tribal position.

Based on moral concerns, the tribe supports strong actions to save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. That should involve a health assessment for the two orcas that seem to be in declining health, Kurt said. Feeding the two whales and providing medicine to help them recover could be part of the plan, he added. Whether the tribe could support capturing the whales to nurse them back to health is a controversial question that has not yet been resolved among tribal members, he said.

“How does the moral obligation define that scenario?” Kurt wondered. “It would be traumatic to take a whale away from its family. There is not a firm decision yet about that solution.”

Finding a way to feed the entire population of 75 Southern Residents could be critical to their survival, Kurt said, and it might require setting up feeding stations where the whales could come for food.

“The killer whales are sending a message,” Kurt said. “It’s now or never. We will soon know if the Salish Sea is going to remain an ecosystem that can be repaired. It’s not an issue of more science. We have to act on what we know.”

Legal rights for orcas themselves

A coalition of various groups today unveiled a declaration proclaiming the inherent rights of the Southern Resident orcas to exist. The recognition comes with some urgency, according to the group, because a new calf was recently born — the first birth in three years.

“We’d be having very different conversations if we approached recovery with the orca’s best interests in mind,” said Elizabeth M. Dunne in a news release.

“The orca shows us how our current laws are not remedying the severe decline of entire ecosystems – from the Salish Sea to the Columbia River basin and Snake River watershed,” said Dunne, who helped draft the declaration. “We must adopt a framework recognizing that ecosystems have the rights — to exist, flourish, evolve, to sustain life, and to be restored to a healthy state — if we truly want to save the orca, and ultimately ourselves, from extinction.”

Among its provisions, the Declaration of the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas calls for the immediate creation of a stewardship board for the Salish Sea based on a rights-of-nature framework. It should include a guardian representation for the Southern Resident Orcas, according to the petition.

Movie: “The Whale” to play in Port Orchard

The true story of Luna, a young killer whale separated from his Southern Resident community, will be shown tomorrow (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema in downtown Port Orchard. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido invited me to be on hand after the movie to answer questions and talk about orcas.

Luna, or L-98, made his appearance suddenly in 2001 in Nootka Sound along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where he became lonely and developed a habit of seeking out human companionship. An effort to capture the orca and return him to the Salish Sea failed amidst a conflict between the Canadian government and the local band of First Nations people.

In a move review I wrote for Water Ways in September 2011, I called “The Whale” a beautiful film for its photography and careful portrayal of characters and situations. It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints, but I thought filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit pulled it off accurately.

I happen to know something about this story, because I was in Nootka Sound for two weeks leading up to the attempted capture of Luna and for a short time after the project was abandoned. I was the so-called “pool reporter” representing U.S. media, and I became acquainted with Mike and Suzanne.

Ways of Whales Workshop

On Saturday, the annual Ways of Whales Workshop, including speakers and presentations on a variety of marine mammal topics, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Coupeville Middle School, 501 S. Main St, on Whidbey Island.

Speakers and their topics include:

  • Howard Garrett of Orca Network on Lolita/Tokitae;
  • Cindy Elliser of Pacific Mammal Research on harbor porpoise status and identification;
  • Stephanie Norman of Marine-Med and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network on harbor porpoise health and diseases;
  • Sandra O’Neill of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on contamination in herring, salmon and orcas;
  • Amy Carey of Sound Action on nearshore habitat protection and regulatory reform; and
  • Deborah Giles on Southern Resident killer whale research.

Singer/songwriter Dana Lyons will perform his song “The Great Salish Sea.”

The event is sponsored by Orca Network. Cost for the workshop is $35, or $25 for students and seniors. Lunch is available for an additional $10. Advance registration is highly recommended because of limited seating. Visit www.orcanetwork.org, email info@orcanetwork.org or call either 360-331-3543 or 1-866-ORCANET.

A no-host social will follow at Ciao Restaurant in Coupeville for everyone attending the workshop.

Amusing Monday: Researchers untangle the mystery of hagfish slime

“Hundreds of meters deep in the dark of the ocean, a shark glides toward what seems like a meal. It’s kind of ugly, eel-like and not particularly meaty, but still probably food. So the shark strikes.

“This is where the interaction of biology and physics gets mysterious, as the shark finds its dinner interrupted by a cloud of protective slime that appears out of nowhere around an otherwise placid hagfish.”

I don’t usually begin my “Amusing Monday” blog posts with a quote from a news release, but writer Chris Barncard has described precisely what leads up to an encounter between a fish predator and the mysterious hagfish. Biting a hagfish sends a shudder of revulsion through an enemy trying to eat it. The news release, found on the website of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, describes the research that has led to a mathematical description of an attack by hagfish slime.

“In the blink of an eye (or the flash of attacking tail and teeth), the hagfish can produce many times its own body’s volume in slime,” writes Chris Barncard. “The goop is so thick and fibrous, predators have little choice but to spit out the hagfish and try to clear their mouths.”

Jean-Luc Thiffeault, a UW-Madison math professor, has been working to mathematically model the hagfish response, which can occur in half a second.

“The mouth of the shark is immediately chock full of this gel,” he said. “In fact, it often kills them, because it clogs their gills.”

I’ve pulled together some amusing videos of hagfish to show this strange fish in action. The video at the bottom of the page was offered by the researchers to show how the slime is able to expand so suddenly. As usual, go full-screen for the best view.

When the hagfish is attacked, gel is ejected from glands in its skin. The gel consists of seawater-trapping threads that are coiled up into “skeins” each having a diameter about twice the width of a human hair. Each tiny skein is coiled so tightly that it can release up to six inches of thread.

Previous researchers found that it took several hours for the skeins to unwind if they were placed in still water, whereas stirring the water speeded up the process.

Study collaborators Randy Ewoldt, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Illinois, and his graduate student Gaurav Chaudhary studied the process under a microscope and worked with Thiffeault to describe the fluid dynamics.

“Our model hinges on an idea of a small piece that’s initially dangling out, and then a piece that’s being pulled away,” Thiffeault was quoted as saying. “Think of it as a roll of tape. To start pulling tape from a new roll, you may have to hunt for the end and pick it loose with your fingernail. But if there’s already a free end, it’s easy to catch it with something and get going….

“The main conclusion of our model is we think the mechanism relies on the threads getting caught on something else — other threads, all the surfaces on the inside of a predator’s mouth, pretty much anything — and it’s from there it can really be explosive.”

Improving the hydrodynamics of the system are proteins found in mucous that can help break apart the skeins.

“Nothing is going to happen as nicely as in our model — which is more of a good start for anyone who wants to take more measurements — but our model shows the physical forces play the biggest role,” Thiffeault said.

While hagfish may act like an alien creature, understanding the behavior of tangled threads in a microscopic world could lead to new applications for gel technology in the world of industry and medicine, according to the researchers. At least one company, Benthic labs, is working on developing a synthetic slime that could be used in consumer products, such as packaging and clothing, in place of materials derived from petroleum.

One species of hagfish, Pacific hagfish, can be found off the West Coast from Canada to Mexico in waters from 50 to 3,000 feet deep.

Salmon report mixes good and bad news, with a touch of hope

The story of salmon recovery in Washington state is a mixture of good and bad news, according to the latest “State of the Salmon” report issued by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

It’s the usual story of congratulations for 20 years of salmon restoration and protection, along with a sobering reminder about how the growing human population in our region has systematically dismantled natural functions for nearly 150 years.

“We must all do our part to protect our state’s wild salmon,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “As we face a changing climate, growing population and other challenges, now is the time to double down on our efforts to restore salmon to levels that sustain them, our fishing industry and the communities that rely on them. Salmon are crucial to our future and to the survival of beloved orca whales.”

The report reminds us that salmon are important to the culture of our region and to the ecosystem, which includes our cherished killer whales. It is, however, frustrating for everyone to see so little progress in the number of salmon returning to the streams, as reflected in this summary found in the report:

  • Getting worse: Puget Sound chinook, Upper Columbia River spring chinook
  • Not making progress: Upper Columbia River steelhead, Lower Columbia River chum, Lower Columbia River fall chinook, Lower Columbia River spring chinook, Snake River spring and summer chinook
  • Showing signs of progress: Mid-Columbia River steelhead, Lake Ozette sockeye, Lower Columbia River steelhead, Snake River steelhead, Puget Sound steelhead
  • Approaching recovery goals: Hood Canal summer chum, Snake River fall chinook

It would be reassuring if we could know that our efforts in salmon recovery are making some real difference before we “double down on our efforts,” as the governor suggests. That’s why I spent considerable time trying to answer the question of whether we have turned the corner on habitat destruction in Puget Sound. Could we at least be improving the habitat faster than we are degrading it with new development? Check out “Are we making progress on salmon recovery” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

As I point out in the article, this question is not just a matter of counting salmon that return to the streams, because many factors are involved in salmon survival. Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are investigating habitat conditions and the fate of young salmon before they reach saltwater, based on many ongoing studies. I’m hoping their upcoming findings can boost confidence that restoration work is on the right track.

Looking beyond the streams, I have reported on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, which is asking important questions about what happens to young salmon after they leave the streams and head out to sea. You can read the four-part series called “Marine survival: New clues emerging in salmon deaths” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The new “State of the Salmon” report describes, in a general way, the work that needs to be done, concluding that renewed efforts should be focused on:

  • Larger habitat restoration and protection projects
  • Better control of harmful development
  • Management and cleanup of stormwater
  • Addressing climate change
  • Restoring access to spawning and rearing habitat
  • Engaging communities
  • Reducing salmon predators and destructive invasive species, and
  • Integration of harvest, hatchery, hydropower and habitat actions

These general discussions, which are found in Section 9 of the executive summary to the “State of the Salmon” report, could be helpful if you haven’t heard any of this before. If you would like more details, however, I would direct you to these documents:

One of the most engaging sections of the new “State of the Salmon” report is the one containing “Salmon Recovery Stories.” If you read through all 24 of these stories (not necessarily in one sitting), you can confirm what you already know, and you are bound to learn some new things along the way. I know I did. The writing is tight and informative, while the pictures, videos are graphics complete the story-telling. The section is like a primer in salmon restoration.

“It’s not that we don’t know how to recover salmon,” Kaleen Cottingham, director of the Recreation and Conservation Office, said in a news release. “We know what needs to be done, and we have the people in place to do the hard work. We just haven’t received the funding necessary to do what’s required of us.”

Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

If you consider allowable harvest levels under the previous 2009 treaty with Canada, the cutbacks are even greater — up to 25 percent for some stocks, he said. The difference is that actual fishing never reached the allowable levels because of declines in the overall chinook population.

“I think we achieved some major reductions in fisheries from the existing agreement,” said Anderson, a former director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The actual change in allowable catches in some cases is much greater than 12.5 percent. A lot of people doubted that we were going to be able to get any cuts at all, so this is a significant advancement in conservation for Washington stocks.”

Negotiations for the revised treaty were completed in July, but details of the treaty remained under wraps pending full ratification by the United States and Canada. Because the treaty was expiring at the end of 2018, the two governments agreed to impose the new treaty provisions on an interim basis beginning Jan. 1. Consequently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released the chinook chapters to the treaty on Dec. 31.

Because the interests of Washington and Oregon don’t always line up with Alaska, it took nearly a year to formulate the U.S. position, which includes consultation with state and tribal governments. It took another 16 months to reach an agreement with Canada. During that time, the commissioners got together for about 14 meetings as well as many more conference calls, according to Phil Anderson, who represents the interests of Washington and Oregon on the international commission.

“Even though we had some tough issues to resolve, we were able to keep everyone at the table by showing civility and respect for each other,” Phil said, noting that those involved were conscious of the failed 1999 treaty negotiations. That’s when talks broke down, the treaty expired and the thorniest issues had to be resolved at higher levels of government — including the U.S. State Department.

Conservation aspects of the treaty became the driving factor in negotiations, Phil said. Puget Sound chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while Southern Resident killer whales are listed as endangered. Alaskan officials, who represent fishermen with big money to lose, had to be convinced that Washington and Oregon were doing their part to preserve the species.

“If you are asking people to cut their (fishing) opportunities for your conservation reasons, it is not surprising that they need to know that we are doing everything we can here, both in fishery management and on the habitat side of things,” Phil said.

Charles Swanton, deputy commissioner for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, toured the region to observe extensive habitat-restoration projects, hatchery programs and other conservation projects in Puget Sound. Swanton, who has since resigned, represented the interests of Alaska on the Pacific Salmon Commission. Ron Allen of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe represented U.S. tribal interests, alternating in the commissioner post with McCoy Oatman of the Nez Perce Tribe. Bob Turner of NOAA Fisheries represented the federal government on the commission.

Planning for this year’s fishing seasons begins with an estimate of the total number of fish that have survived to adulthood. The terms of the treaty place limitations on Alaskan and Canadian harvest of stocks returning to Puget Sound, the Columbia River and the Washington and Oregon coasts.

The total number can vary greatly year to year, but in recent years Puget Sound runs of hatchery and wild chinook have ranged from about 200,000 to 250,000 fish, while the Columbia River has seen returns of roughly a million chinook. Preseason forecasts for this year’s salmon runs are scheduled to be discussed at meetings Feb. 26 in Montesano and Feb. 27 in Lacey.

Both U.S. and Canadian officials are interested in protecting chinook salmon to feed the 74 remaining Southern Resident killer whales, which travel from southern British Columbia through Puget Sound and down the West Coast to California. A shortage of chinook, their primary prey, has been identified as a major cause of their drop in population from 97 animals in 1996 to 74 today, a decline of 24 percent.

Phil said the commission spent a good deal of time talking about the orcas and the impact of fishing on the prey base. “We did a lot of analysis and modeling to make sure we fully understood the effect (of the agreement) on the prey base. The orca issues were a big deal to both countries.”

Also important is the goal of getting more chinook back to their spawning grounds, where habitat has been improved in many areas.

As harvest managers plan for upcoming fishing seasons, increasing consideration is being given to which chinook stocks are important to the killer whales and where the orcas are likely to hunt for them. The effect of saving salmon for the whales as well as for spawning has led to an overall shift in allowable fishing from the open ocean, where stocks are mixed, to fishing areas closer to the streams. That way more abundant runs can be targeted by fishers after the fish have swum past areas where the whales are most likely to get them.

Fishing seasons are established to allow a percentage of the fish to be harvested in each area along their way back to their home streams. Because Puget Sound chinook are listed as threatened, the federal government has established a maximum percentage of harvest allowed for each stock, known as the “rebuilding exploitation rate.”

Under the previous 2009 agreement, only 17 percent of the Puget Sound chinook stocks would have met the negotiated goal. As a result of further fishing cutbacks the past few years, the RER was actually achieved for 42 percent of the stocks. Under the new agreement, it is anticipated that the goal will be reached for 67 percent of the Puget Sound populations.

That’s a nice jump, but it still leaves a lot of Puget Sound streams that are not meeting the objectives, Phil conceded.

“Yes, we’re not meeting them today,” he said, “and even if we close all fisheries, we would not be meeting them either.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government requires mitigation measures, such as habitat restoration and conservation hatcheries, designed to increase the overall populations. Without mitigation measures, fisheries on depressed stocks would not be allowed at all.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty also covers coho and chum salmon fishing. Provisions for coho were simplified but did not change much. The provisions for chum call for decreased fishing pressure when the runs are low.

One of the steps before full implementation of the new treaty is for NOAA Fisheries in the United States to complete a biological opinion to ensure that the treaty complies with the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, the treaty must undergo a period of parliamentary consideration in Canada and executive approval in the U.S., and Congress must approve funding to implement provisions of the treaty that include habitat restoration, hatchery conservation, marking of Southeast Alaska hatchery chinook, and increased production of hatchery chinook specifically to feed the orcas.

Amusing Monday: Stirring photos honored by National Geographic

Nearly 10,000 photos were entered into this year’s National Geographic Photo Contest, and I’m sure that it was difficult for the judges to choose. To feature some great water-related images, I picked three of my favorites from the finalists.

“Moonlight,” a photo of the famous Wanapa Tree in New Zealand. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Mo Wu, Taichung, Taiwan

The first photo, titled “Moonlight,” focuses on the Wanapa Tree, which photographer Mo Wu of Taichung, Taiwan, called the most famous tree in New Zealand. Wu waited until the moon was over the tree to capture the reflection and moon shadow in Wanapa Lake. The photo was entered into the Places category.

The second photo, titled “emBEARassed,” shows a brown bear slipping and taking a brief tumble while fishing at Brooks Falls in Alaska.

“EmBEARassed,” a photo of a brown bear taking a tumble at Brooks Falls, Alaska.
Photo: Taylor Thomas Albright, Yuma, Ariz.

“Anxious, aggressive and hoping to get a better angle at the leaping salmon, this bear reached out a bit too far and lost his footing,” explained photographer Taylor Thomas Albright of Yuma, Ariz. “Splashing into the pool below unharmed, he eventually climbed back into his spot to wait for the next chance at a salmon.”

A National Geographic producer, David Y. Lee, commented, “Fantastic moment you documented here, Taylor. I usually see images of the bears at Brooks Falls just standing and waiting, maybe a salmon or two jumping up in the air. So I love seeing something different. Yes, this is a #bearblooper. I love the way the other bear is looking at the falling one, like ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘Are you OK?’ Great job being ready to make this frame when it happened. Well done.”

“Surfers in Bali,” taken at sunrise in Indonesia.
Photo: Carsten Schertzer, Oxnard, Calif.

The third photo, titled “Surfers in Bali,” was taken at sunrise in Indonesia, according to photographer Carsten Schertzer of Oxnard, Calif. It was entered in the Place category.

“I first saw the gate earlier in the morning, knowing this would be a perfect place for an image,” he said. “I only needed a subject to walk within the frame, so I sat and waited, locked in my composition and waited until the surfers walked into my frame.”

Kimberly Coates, a photographer for NatGeo’s “Your Shot” program, noted, “You captured this shot at the perfect moment! I love the symmetry of the structure in front and how it frames the surfers. The sky is also such a lovely shade of purple! Thanks for sharing, Carsten!”

“Unreal” shows thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars lined up in the desert. Click for a slide show of winning photos in the National Geographic contest.
Photo: Jassen Todorov, San Francisco

The fourth photo is the Grand Prize winner of the photo contest, with photographer Jassen Todorov of San Francisco claiming a $5,000 prize. The picture shows thousands of Volkswagen and Audi cars lined up in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, the result of a recall after Volkswagen was caught cheating on emissions controls.

Click on the photo to call up a slide show of all 12 winning photos, or go directly to the “Wallpapers: Winners” page. You can review all the finalists by category or look a those that made the judges’ cuts over a five-week period. The pictures can be downloaded and used as wallpaper for your computer, tablet or cellphone.

Entries for next year’s contest may be submitted in October. Updated rules are expected to be posted later, but general information can be found on the Rules webpage.