Category Archives: Benthic organisms

Amusing Monday: Octopuses, the aliens we can encounter on Earth

Octopuses are among the coolest creatures on Earth. Not only are they dexterous, with an amazing ability to grasp and manipulate objects, they also seem to know what they are doing.

In tests, octopuses have proven that they can solve puzzles, and they certainly have some sort of memory. They can tell people apart, even if dressed in the same uniform. This may be surprising, especially since octopuses don’t really have a brain like that of humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Not having a backbone — or any bones for that matter — allows octopuses to escape from places where much smaller invertebrates would get stuck. Check out the first video on this page, a popular clip taken by Chance Miller, an Alaskan fishing and tour guide for Miller’s Landing near Seward.

Chance tells his skeptical passengers that the large octopus slithering around his deck would escape out a tiny drain hole, that is if and when the creature decides to go.

No way, says one man heard on the video. “That’s like trying to get my wife in her wedding dress; it ain’t gonna happen.” But, of course, it did.

As for intelligence, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith says it is not so much a question of which animals among all the species are smarter in an formalistic sense. It’s about which animal best uses its intelligence to solve problems that relate to survival and success in other ways. The octopus is thus worthy of attention.

In his new and highly acclaimed book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Godfrey-Smith talks about how octopuses and other cephalopods have a disbursed nervous system with neurons throughout their bodies. In some ways, a single tentacle may think for itself.

Mammals and birds have long been regarded as the smartest animals on Earth, but that may reveal a bias based on our similar patterns of thinking. After all, mammals and birds are closely related to us in an evolutionary sense, compared to all the invertebrates in the world.

Looking back in time, it is difficult to come up with a common ancestor to both humans and octopuses, Godfrey-Smith said. “It was probably an animal about the size of a leach or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.” Check out the fascinating article in Quartz magazine by Olivia Goldhill.

This line of reasoning suggests that intelligence evolved on Earth in two very different ways. Studying the octopus could be the closest encounter that humans have with an alien creature, according to Godfrey-Smith. I may never think of an octopus quite the same way again.

Other interesting findings about octopuses are revealed in a 2009 Scientific American article, in which writer Brendan Borrell interviews Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

The second video on this page shows an octopus solving a real-world problem of grabbing a meal by taking advantage of a human, while the third video is a 43-minute Planet Earth documentary released last summer about the intelligence and alien nature of the octopus.

I leave you at the end with a brief clip from the Cirque du Soleil performance of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles.

Pesticides and salmon: Can we see a light at the end of the tunnel?

Once again, the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined in official findings that three common pesticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — raise the risk of extinction for threatened and endangered salmon.

A crop duster sprays pesticide on a field near an irrigation ditch.
Photo: NOAA/USFWS

By extension, for the first time, the agency also concluded that those same pesticides threaten Puget Sound’s endangered orca population by putting their prey — chinook and other salmon — at risk.

This politically and legally charged issue — which has been around for more than 15 years — has gone beyond a debate over potential harm from pesticides. It also raises uncomfortable questions about whether our society will follow science as we try to solve environmental problems.

The immediate finding of “jeopardy” — meaning that the three pesticides pose a risk of extinction — comes in a biological opinion (PDF 415.6 mb) that is more than 3,700 pages long and covers not just salmon but, for the first time, dozens of other marine species on the Endangered Species List.

The report follows a scientific methodology for assessing the effects of pesticides that arises from suggestions by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS report (PDF 14.2 mb) attempted to reconcile differing methods of assessing risk that had been used by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS.

EPA’s original assessment raised no concerns about the effect of these pesticides on the survival of salmon populations. The original lawsuit by environmental groups forced the EPA to “consult” with NMFS, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The result was the first jeopardy finding in 2008. For background, see Water Ways, Aug. 11, 2008, in which I reported that the long wait for regulatory action on pesticides may be about over. Little did I know.

The biological opinion, or BiOp for short, examines both the direct harms to species exposed to pesticides — such as effects on behavior, reproduction and immune function — as well as indirect effects — such as whether the pesticides wipe out insects needed for the fish to eat.

The new BiOp is considered a pilot study for future pesticide assessments.

“Notably,” states the document, “this Opinion represents the first consultation using newly developed approaches and the first to assess all listed species throughout the U.S., its territories, and protectorates. Future Opinions regarding pesticides may utilize different analyses and approaches as the interagency consultation effort proceeds.”

The next step is for the EPA to restrict the use of the pesticides to reduce the risks for salmon and other species. Among suggested measures, the BiOp says those who use pesticides must limit the total amount of chemicals applied in high-risk areas, such as streams. No-spray buffers or similar alternatives are suggested.

Interim no-spray buffers, established by the courts, will remain in effect until the EPA takes action. The interim buffers were put on, taken off, and are back on as a result of the lengthy court battle between the agencies and environmental groups. Pesticide manufacturers have weighed in, arguing about the need for pesticides without undue restrictions.

The Trump administration asked the court for a two-year delay in the release of the BiOp, but NMFS ultimately met the deadline when the judge failed to rule on the request in time to make a difference.

I discussed some of the ongoing intrigue and a bit of history in a Water Ways post last August, after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course on an impending ban on chlorpyrifos. The proposed ban, approved during the Obama administration, came in response to studies that showed how the chemical could adversely affect children’s brains.

Although it took legal action to get to this point, agency and independent scientists have worked together to study the problem and come up with solutions. The question now is whether policymakers and politicians will take reasonable steps to reduce the risks based upon these findings, which are complex, evolving and rarely definitive for all time.

As I was going back through the blog posts I’ve written about pesticides, I recalled that President George W. Bush wanted to limit scientific consultations in an effort to streamline the regulatory process — much as President Trump’s people are doing today. Check out Water Ways from March 4, 2009, which shows a video of President Obama reversing the Bush policy and speaking out for increased input from scientists.

When it comes to human health and the environment, it is good to remember that without the work of scientists, many species throughout the world would have been wiped out long ago. Human cancer, disease and brain impairment would be far worse today without regulations based on scientific findings. Science can tell us about the risk of pesticides and other threats to salmon and orcas. But knowledge is not enough. People must take reasonable actions to protect themselves and the environment. And so the story goes on.

Last week, Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups in the legal battle, released the biological opinion, which had been sent by NOAA as part of the legal case. The group posted links to the document and related information in a news release. As far as I know, nobody in the Trump administration has spoken about the findings.

Unusual ‘high tide or low tide’ spider named for songwriter Bob Marley

A team of researchers in Australia has discovered a remarkable spider that has adapted to life at the edge of the ocean.

When the tide is out, the spider roams about the beach hunting tiny invertebrates. But when the tide is in, the spider retreats to underwater sanctuaries in barnacle shells or in tiny spaces among corals, rocks or kelp. To breathe, the spider builds air pockets out of silk.

The newly named Bob Marley’s Intertidal Spider, Desis bobmarleyi. // Photo: R. Raven

The researchers, associated with Queensland Museum and the University of Hamburg, named the newly discovered species Desis bobmarleyi for the late Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley. They were inspired by the song “High Tide or Low Tide,” a lesser-known Bob Marley piece that seems to be cherished by his greatest fans. (Listen in the video below.)

“The song ‘High Tide or Low Tide’ promotes love and friendship through all struggles of life,” wrote the researchers — Barbara Baehr, Robert Raven and Danilo Harms — in an introduction to their paper published in journal Evolutionary Systematics. “It is his music that aided a field trip to Port Douglas in coastal Queensland, Australia, to collect spiders with a highly unique biology.”

It isn’t often that one sees a research paper that delays talking about the science to discuss history and inspiration. In this paper, the team honored not just one person but two. The opening paragraphs of the introduction to the paper need no explanation:

“When Amalie Dietrich travelled from Europe to Australia in 1863, she not only attempted to collect animals and plants for the museum trade, but also sought independence and liberty. A strong-headed and adventurous women by nature, she seized new opportunities and took risks on a then-unexplored continent to elevate herself from poverty and oppression.

“Her life story is that of adventure and also life’s struggles and how to overcome them. The Godeffroy Collection of arachnids, accumulated by her and other explorers over a decade in Australia and the Pacific before the turn of the 20th century, is the primary taxonomic reference for spiders of Australasia and remains highly relevant until today.

“Reggae legend Bob Marley certainly had a different background but shared with Dietrich and other explorers some character traits: adventurous and resilient at heart, he liberated himself and his peers from poverty and hopelessness. He took to music, not nature, but left traces through songs that teach optimism and independence of the mind, rather than hate and passive endurance.”

As for the newly discovered species of spider, the researchers propose the common name “Bob Marley’s Intertidal Spider.” The species belongs in the genus Desis, a group of spiders that are truly marine in nature, having broken ranks with an overwhelming number of terrestrial spiders.

The Godeffroy Collection of spiders is maintained by the Centre of Natural History in Hamburg and contains nearly all of the spiders collected by Amalie Dietrich in her early exploration of Australia. German arachnologists Ludwig Koch and Duke Eduard von Keyserling described the taxonomy of those unusual marine spiders along with other marine spiders collected from Singapore, New Guinea and Sāmoa.

This latest paper revisits intertidal species of Desis by re-examining the Godeffroy Collection, while describing the new species named after Bob Marley. The researchers found two of the newly named spiders on brain coral during an extremely low tide. The reef where they were found often lies under more than 3 feet of water.

The range and distribution of the Bob Marley’s spiders remains unknown, but they have been found in several intertidal zones along the Great Barrier Reef.

Along with the new species, two closely related species of spiders that occupy the “high-tide-or-low-tide habitat” were brought out, examined and described anew.

“Both species have been preserved for more than a century but not been studied in detail since their discovery,” the researchers wrote. “By doing so, we honour those that emancipate themselves from oppression, mental or organisational, and seek freedom and independence.”

Carbon emissions and nitrogen releases alter Puget Sound’s chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of Puget Sound may be as important as understanding the biology. Let me put that another way: Biology as we know it in Puget Sound wouldn’t exist without the right chemistry.

Tiny krill, one of many organisms affected by ocean acidification, demonstrate how water chemistry can affect the entire Puget Sound food web. For example, krill are eaten by herring, which are eaten by Chinook salmon, which are eaten by killer whales.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ocean acidification is altering the chemistry of the oceans on a worldwide scale, but the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound are being hit with some of the most severe problems, as experts point out in a new report by the Washington State Marine Resources Advisory Council.

For years, I have written about the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and other areas of Puget Sound. Of course, oxygen is essential to life as we know it. Major fish kills, in which dead fish float to the surface, have generated a lot of attention. At the same time, it has been harder to report on the animals dying from lack of oxygen when their carcasses are at rest in deep water. And it has been nearly impossible to keep track of the “dead zones” that come and go as conditions change.

It wasn’t until more research was conducted on the effects of ocean acidification that researchers realized that low-oxygen conditions — which were bad enough — had a dangerous companion called low pH — the increased acidity that we are talking about. Low pH can affect the growth and even the survival of organisms that build shells of calcium, including a variety of tiny organisms that play key roles in the food web.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, we see an increase in carbonic acid in the water, which has an effect on the ability of organisms to take up calcium carbonate. For a more complete explanation, check out “What is aragonite saturation?” on page 17 of the report.

Increased acidification is a special problem for Washington and the West Coast of North America, where deep acidified water in the Pacific Ocean hits the coast and rises to the surface.

“By accident of geography, we have this upwelling that … forces us into dealing with ocean acidification before almost anywhere else on the planet,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council. “I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Washington is leading the world in terms of science and monitoring…”

Jay, who serves on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, was quoted in a story I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute, later republished by the Kitsap Sun. The story describes some of the problems resulting from ocean acidification in Puget Sound, where an entirely different mechanism connects ocean acidification closely to low-oxygen conditions.

Researchers have concluded that an excessive growth of plankton in Puget Sound can be triggered, in part, by the release of nutrients from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and the heavy use of fertilizers. When plankton die and decay, bacteria use up oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide, thus increasing acidification.

Although the details still need to be sorted out, it is clear that some creatures are more sensitive than others to low oxygen, while low pH also affects animals in different ways. This “double whammy” of low oxygen and low pH increases the risks to the entire food web, without even considering the added threats of higher temperatures and toxic pollution.

Ongoing actions emphasized in the new report fall into six categories:

  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Cut back on nutrient releases into the water
  • Improve adaptation strategies to reduce the harmful effects of ocean acidification
  • Invest in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Inform, educate and engage Washington residents and key decision makers
  • Maintain a coordinated focus on all aspects of ocean acidification

“The updated report reinforces our federal, state and tribal partnership to combat ocean acidification by working together, modifying and expanding on approaches we have developed through ongoing research,” said Libby Jewett, director of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program in a news release (PDF 166 kb).

“For instance,” she continued, “in the new plan, scientists in the state of Washington will be asked not only to test hands-on remediation options which involve cultivating kelp as a way to remove carbon dioxide from local waters but also to explore how to move this seaweed into land agriculture as a way of recycling it.”

I thought Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the MRAC, said it well in an introduction to the report (PDF 39 kb):

“Global and local carbon dioxide emissions, as well as local nutrient sources beyond natural levels, are significantly altering seawater chemistry. We are the cause for the rapid accumulation of 30 to 50 percent of the enriched CO2 in surface waters in Puget Sound and 20 percent of enriched CO2 in deep waters off our shores. Washingtonians understand what is so dramatically at stake. We are not standing by waiting for someone else to inform or rescue us.”

Green crabs go wild near Sequim, but experts say control is still possible

Nearly 100 invasive European green crabs were trapped along Dungeness Spit near Sequim this past spring and summer — far more than anywhere else in Puget Sound since the dangerous invaders first showed up last year.

European green crabs started showing up in traps on Dungeness Spit in April.
Photo: Allen Pleus, WDFW

Despite the large number of crabs found in this one location, green crab experts remain undeterred in their effort to trap as many of the crabs as they can. And they still believe it is possible to keep the invasion under control.

“In a lot of ways, this program is functioning much as we had hoped,” said Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant, who is coordinating volunteers who placed hundreds of traps in more than 50 locations throughout Puget Sound. “We look in places where we think the crabs are most detectable and try to keep the populations from getting too large, so that they are still possible to control.”

After the first green crabs were found on Dungeness Spit in April, the numbers appeared to be tapering off by June, as I described using a graph in Water Ways on June 24. The numbers stayed relatively low, with three caught in July, two in August, three in September and two in October. But they never stopped coming.

The total so far at Dungeness Spit is 96 crabs, and more can be expected when trapping resumes next spring. The good news is that all the crabs caught so far appear to be just one or two years old — suggesting that they likely arrived as free-floating larvae. That doesn’t mean the crabs aren’t mating at Dungeness Spit, but the trapping effort has reduced the population to the point that males and females are probably having a tough time finding each other.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has taken charge of trapping at Dungeness Spit, will need to decide whether to attempt a complete eradication of the local green crab population, according to Allen Pleus, coordinator of Washington State’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program. That would involve managing a large number of traps until no more crabs are seen. The alternative, he said, would be to manage the crab population with fewer traps and make further decisions down the line.

During one three-day stretch last year, 126 traps were deployed in areas on and near Dungeness Spit, part of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even with the most exhaustive trapping program, there is no guarantee that green crabs won’t be found again, Allen said. The likely source of the crab larvae is an established population of green crabs in Sooke Inlet on Vancouver Island, just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Dungeness Spit.

Allen said he is disappointed that crabs continued to be caught on or near Dungeness Spit — mainly in one small area near the connected Graveyard Spit. “But I am very impressed with the dedication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which continued to trap throughout the summer,” he said.

While there is no evidence so far that the invading crabs have reproduced at Dungeness Spit, it is possible that mating took place. If so, everyone involved in the green crab effort could face a whole new group of young crabs next year.

I have to admit that I was worried last spring that funding for the essential volunteer effort would run out as officials scrambled to finance the start of trapping season. But the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to fund the project through next year under the Marine and Nearshore Grant Program.

Meanwhile, Allen said he is working with Canadian officials to see what can be done about reducing the population of green crabs in Sooke Inlet, which is likely to remain a source of the invasive crabs coming into Washington state. The Canadians have their own concerns about green crabs, which can severely damage commercial shellfish operations and disrupt critical eelgrass habitats.

“Sooke Inlet is the only known population established in the Salish Sea,” Allen said. “We are working with Canada and setting up meetings this winter to continue our discussions.”

Canadian officials are monitoring for green crabs on their side of the border, but the effort is much less than in Puget Sound. It appears that only limited efforts have been made so far to control the Sooke Inlet population and reduce the amount of invasive crab larvae heading to other areas in the Salish Sea.

Researchers are still investigating the conditions that allow green crab larvae to survive long enough to grow into adult crabs. It appears that larvae move up the coast from California during warm years and particularly during El Niño periods, Emily told me. That may explain why the Puget Sound traps began catching so many crabs the past two summers.

“The signal we are seeing does point to 2015 and ‘16 as being the first arrivals,” she said. “Our working hypothesis is that warm years are spreading larvae.”

That could offer renewed hope for the immediate future, since El Niño is over and we may be going into cooler La Niña conditions next year.

No new crabs have shown up in the San Juan Islands, where Puget Sound’s first green crab was discovered last year. But two more were found about 30 miles away in Padilla Bay, where four crabs were caught last fall.

New areas with green crabs this year are Lagoon Point on Whidbey Island, where two crabs were caught, and Sequim Bay, not far from Dungeness Spit, where one crab was caught.

The latest concern over green crabs is Makah Bay on the outer coast of Washington near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. In August, a beach walker spotted a single green crab on the Makah Tribe’s reservation and sent a picture to the Puget Sound Crab Team, which confirmed the finding. Tribal officials launched a three-day trapping effort last month and caught 34 crabs — 22 males and 12 females — in 79 traps.

An aggressive trapping effort is being planned by tribal officials for the coming spring. Interested volunteers should contact Adrianne Akmajian, marine ecologist for the Makah Tribe, at marine.ecologist@makah.com

The Makah effort is separate from the Puget Sound Crab Team, which encourages beach goers to learn to identify green crabs by looking at photos on its website. Anyone who believes he or she has found a green crab should leave it in place but send photographs to the crab team at crabteam@uw.edu

Emily said she is most proud of all the people and organizations that have come together as partners to quickly locate the invasive crabs and advance the science around the issue. Such cooperation, she said, makes the impact of the program much greater than it would be otherwise.

Amusing Monday: Splendid underwater images from EV Nautilus

Exploration Vessel Nautilus has completed its journey north to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where the research team captured plenty of intriguing video, including a close look at the sunken submarine USS Bugara (first video below). All videos are best in full screen.

EV Nautilus, operated by Ocean Exploration Trust, conducts scientific research along the sea bottom throughout the world, specializing in biology, geology and archeology. Education is a major part of the effort, and school curricula are built around live and recorded telecasts from the ship. In addition, a select group of educators and students are invited to go on the expeditions each summer.

This year’s expedition began in May in California, where the ship took data for high-resolution maps of offshore areas never surveyed before. That was followed by an examination of the Cascadia Margin, a geologically active area off the Oregon Coast where the researchers identified bubbling seeps with multibeam sonar.

Dives using remotely operated vehicles began in June when the ship arrived off the Canadian Coast west of Vancouver Island. One dive, which went down to 2,200 meters, captured images of a hydrothermal vent, where water gets expelled after being superheated by the Earth’s magma. Watch the video saved on the Nautilus Facebook page. In another video, the temperature at one vent got so hot that the researchers found themselves cheering as the temperature at the probe kept going up.

I am easily amused, but I have to say that I was intrigued by a 9,000-year-old living reef made of glass sponges that was discovered off the coast of Galiano Island, British Columbia (second video this page).

One amusing video was created while watching a six-gill shark in the Channel Islands off California. Suddenly, a crab came into view carrying another crab (third video below). “It’s an Uber crab!” one researcher commented. “Is that lunch?” another wondered.

Another great shot from the Channel Islands showed a big ball of shimmering anchovies along with a select group of predators, including several fish, a six-gill shark and a sea lion. This video can be seen on the Nautilius Facebook page.

The examination of the submarine Bugara (first video on this page) occurred Aug. 25 off Cape Flattery in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The event was live-streamed with commentary from scientists, archaeologists and historians, as well as veterans who served on the submarine. Bugara was built during World War II and later became the first American submarine to enter the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

After its decommissioning in California, Bugara was being towed to Washington state to serve as a target for a new weapons system. On June 1, 1971, the submarine took on water during transit and sank to the bottom, where it has rested ever since. No injuries occurred during the incident. For historical details, go to Bugara.net, which was set up for former sailors and others associated with the submarine.

A longer 1.5-hour video of the Bugara inspection by ROV can be viewed on the Nautilus Facebook page. This is basically what was viewed online in real time by observers — including a group gathered at Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport.

Another interesting video shot in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shows a siphonophore, a colony of specialized organisms that work together to form a chain of individuals that together are capable of swimming, stinging, digesting and reproducing. Researchers working the 4-to-8-p.m. shift were able to observe more than their share of these interesting colonies, so the group became known as the “Siphono4-8” (video below).

Nautilus currently is moored in Astoria, Ore., where it is scheduled to begin the next leg of its expedition on Wednesday. The goal is to search near Oregon’s Heceta Bank for ancient coastal landscapes that may have been above sea level 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. More live sessions and archived video are planned. Follow these Nautilus links for details:

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic’s final resting place. The 2017 Nautilus expedition, which will continue into November, marks the third year of exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The expedition has been covered by these news media:

Are we winning or losing the ongoing battle for salmon habitat?

It has been said that the Puget Sound ecosystem would be far worse off today were it not for the millions of dollars spent on restoration projects over the past 25 years.

Undoubtedly, that’s true, but I think most of us are hoping that these costly efforts will eventually restore salmon populations while improving conditions for other creatures as well. Shouldn’t we be able to measure the progress?

Juvenile chinook salmon
Photo: John McMillan, NOAA

This basic question became the essence of my latest story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound: “Are we making progress on salmon revovery?”

As I describe in the story, what seems like a simple question becomes tangled in the difficulties of measuring population and ecological changes. It turns out that you can’t just count the fish to see if restoration is working. That’s because natural variabilities of weather, ocean conditions and predator/prey populations cause salmon populations to swing wildly from year to year no matter what you do.

While researching this story, I learned a good deal about freshwater habitat conditions needed to help various species of salmon to thrive. Habitat improvements resulting from restoration projects are no doubt helping salmon in significant ways. On the other hand, one cannot ignore human development that continues to degrade habitat — despite improved regulations designed to reduce the damage.

I’ve heard some people say that wild salmon would come back in larger numbers if everyone would just stop fishing for them. This may be true to some extent, especially for high-quality streams that may not be getting enough salmon to spawn. But the key to the problem is understanding the “bottlenecks” that limit salmon survival through their entire lives.

A stream may have plenty of adult spawners, but that does not mean the salmon runs will increase if the eggs are buried in silt or if food supplies limit the number of fry that survive. There may be multiple limiting factors that need to be addressed to ensure healthy ongoing salmon populations.

Small improvements in habitat may actually boost the productivity of salmon in a stream, meaning that more salmon will survive. But the benefits of small projects on large streams may be difficult to distinguish from natural variation. Statistical analysis is used to determine whether increases or decreases in salmon populations are more related to habitat changes or natural variation. It takes a fairly dramatic change to link cause to effect in a statistically significant way.

One ongoing experiment is measuring changes in fry populations in several streams within the same watersheds. One stream is left alone — the “control” stream — while habitat improvements are made in others. Because the streams are closely related, biologists hope to attribute population increases to habitat improvements with a high level of certainty. See Intensively Monitored Watersheds on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The same issue of statistics applies to the aquatic insects that salmon eat. It appears that food supplies are improving in many salmon streams as a result of restoration, but not all benthic invertebrates are responding in the same way. For many streams, it will take more time to get enough data to determine whether the increased bug populations are statistically significant. This happens to be one issue that I side-stepped in the latest story, but I will be returning to it in the future. For background, check out an earlier story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, “Healthy Streams, Healthy Bugs.”

While habitat restoration is ongoing, so too is human development, which continues unabated at what appears to be an accelerating pace. New regulations are designed to result in “no net loss” of important habitats, including shorelines, streams and wetlands. But questions remain about whether local regulations themselves and/or enforcement of the regulations are adequate.

Biologists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center are conducting research to determine whether habitat changes are for better or worse, especially with regard to chinook. We should see some results within the next few years, as the agency prepares to draft the next five-year status report for Puget Sound’s threatened chinook population.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Odd and colorful species make top-10 list for ’17

A newly named stingray that lives in freshwater has joined an omnivorous rat and a couple of leggy wormlike creatures as part of the Top-10 New Species for 2017.

Sulawesi root rat
Photo: Kevin Rowe, Museums Victoria

The top-ten list, compiled by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) at the State University of New York, also includes a tiny spider found in India, a katydid discovered in Malaysia and a spiny ant from Papua New Guinea. Two interesting plants also made the list.

It’s often amusing to learn how various critters are first discovered and ultimately how they are named — sometimes for fictional characters with similar characteristics.

ESF President Quentin Wheeler, who founded the International Institute for Species Exploration, said nearly 200,000 new species have been discovered since the top-10 list was started a decade ago.

“This would be nothing but good news were it not for the biodiversity crisis and the fact that we’re losing species faster than we’re discovering them,” he said. “The rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than in prehistory. Unless we accelerate species exploration, we risk never knowing millions of species or learning the amazing and useful things they can teach us.”

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After environmental restoration, quiet has returned to Port Gamble

Twenty-five years ago, I stood and watched as a screaming buzz saw tossed clouds of sawdust into the air while slicing through thick logs of Douglas fir at the Pope & Talbot sawmill in Port Gamble.

Last week, I walked across the vacant site of the old mill, which was torn down years ago. Along the edge of Port Gamble Bay, I could hear nothing but the sound of the wind and an occasional call of a seagull.

Linda Berry-Maraist, restoration manager for Pope Resources, describes the renewed shoreline along Port Gamble Bay. // Photo: Dunagan

I came back to the old mill site to see how things looked following completion of the $20-million-plus cleanup of Port Gamble Bay. Some 111,000 cubic yards of dredge material is now piled up in the middle of the site, an amount roughly equivalent to 10,000 dumptruck loads.

In addition, nearly 8,600 wooden pilings — most imbedded with creosote — were removed and shipped off for disposal, making it one of the largest piling-removal projects in state history. The final number of pilings removed far exceeded original estimates, largely because buried ones kept turning up during the removal work.

“It’s a huge relief to get this done,” said Jon Rose, vice president of Pope Resources who has overseen a decade of planning and cleanup. “It has been very hard on our staff, hard on the town, hard on our financial statements.

“I think we are on the right side of the mountain,” he added. “Look at how incredible the shore looks.”

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