Category Archives: Benthic organisms

Starfish continue to baffle researchers with mysterious disease

Five years after a mysterious disease began killing millions of starfish and turning their tissues to mush, the decimated population has yet to recover. Meanwhile, researchers continue to struggle to identify a cause for the disease, which appears to have uncertain ties to viruses and possibly environmental conditions.

In Puget Sound, it’s not as easy as it once was to find a diseased sea star, which seems to be a promising sign until you consider how many have died. As I learned last week during an outing to Lofall in North Kitsap, the total number of starfish remains low compared to four years ago, and recovery has been minimal, if at all.

Under the Lofall dock, volunteers have observed that the number of sea stars is still low, but sick ones are no longer common.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Local volunteers have been observing sea stars at Lofall since the beginning of 2014. I first visited the site the following summer with three retired women who lead the monitoring effort there. (See Water Ways , June 17, 2014.) They are still making regular trips at low tide, counting and measuring the starfish and looking for signs of disease.

“The numbers are way down,” noted volunteer Barb Erickson as we stood beneath the Lofall dock last Friday, “but we haven’t seen many sick ones. We also aren’t seeing the little ones.”

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More than one way to join the battle against European green crabs

I’ve received a good response regarding my blog post on Friday, “Green crabs entrenched at Dungeness Spit, but new issues are emerging,” which covered a variety of issues — from where the invasive crabs did NOT come from to new detection methods for invasive species.

I heard some legitimate questions about how to identify European green crabs and what to do if you find one. The main thing is to get a photograph and send it to the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team, which is leading the war on green crabs. I’m reminded that it is illegal to possess a green crab without a permit.

Here are some links from the Crab Team website that could be helpful:

I’m also pleased to see the announcement of a free online webinar on July 10 to help people identify European green crabs. The two-hour “First Detector Training Webinar” is co-sponsored by the Crab Team and Washington Invasive Species Council. Register ahead of time to get information about the event.

Nautilus submarine ‘can send your soul to the bottom’ — Bob Ballard

It is rather amazing to watch live video from a submarine creeping along along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast, and I wanted to remind everyone that this is something they can experience right now via the Nautilus Live webfeed. The live commentary from the operators can be amusing at times, but I didn’t want to wait until Monday to let you know what’s going on.

Exploration Vessel Nautilus, with its remotely operated submarines Hercules and Argus, has been exploring deep-sea vents off Oregon the past few days, marking the beginning of a six-month expedition along the West Coast and around Hawaii. The ROVs were launched Sunday as the weather allowed, and the mother ship is now moving up the coast. I’ve embedded the video on this page, but more information and alternate channels are provided on the Nautilus homepage. One can also send questions to the research team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Green crabs on Dungeness Spit
  • New findings on Whidbey Island
  • Where the crabs are NOT coming from
  • New efforts with Canada
  • First scientific paper on the green crab program
  • New assessment tool on the horizon
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New bridges provide improved habitat in two Kitsap County creeks

Contractors are putting the final touches on two new bridges in Kitsap County, both of which are expected to improve the local environment.

A new bridge over the Carpenter Creek Estuary near Kingston helps to restore the upper salt marsh.
Photo; Stillwaters Environmental Center

One is a 150-foot bridge that crosses the Carpenter Creek Estuary on West Kingston Road near Kingston. The other is a 50-foot bridge that crosses Big Anderson Creek on Seabeck-Holly Road near Holly.

Among local residents, the Carpenter Creek bridge may best be known as the bridge that blocked traffic and forced a detour near Kingston for more than a year — much longer than originally planned. (Recall reporter Nathan Pilling’s story in the Kitsap Sun.) While contract issues remain in dispute, the environmental benefits are clear, according to Joleen Palmer of the nearby Stillwaters Environmental Center.

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Getting little respect, kelp could be the key to survival for some fish

It is all too easy for us to forget about Puget Sound’s productive kelp forests, which have been slowly vanishing from numerous places where masses of vegetation once proliferated.

I never fully appreciated the value of kelp until I began writing about the complexity of the Puget Sound ecosystem. While scuba diving years ago, I came to understand that kelp harbored a vast variety of fish, crabs and other creatures. Still, mostly out of fear of becoming entangled in kelp, I never ventured into the middle of a kelp forest. The stories I heard about divers becoming entangled are real, but they may have been overblown. (Read the story by diver/writer Eric Douglas.)

I will never know what I might have seen as a diver in the middle of a dense kelp forest, but I have always understood that kelp was generally a good thing. As a boater, however, I tended to think of the floating kelp balls and blades as a nuisance to get around or through.

Now I realize that our vanishing bull kelp has been vastly undervalued. Knowing that kelp continues to disappear leaves me with a nagging feeling of despair. I cannot conceive of the ecological loss of a single kelp bed, let alone the dozens of kelp forests that have vanished from Puget Sound.

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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.”