Category Archives: Fish

Amusing Monday: Ten new species, each with unique stories to tell

An international team of taxonomists has chosen the “Top 10 New Species of 2018” from among some 18,000 new species named last year.

They range from the large — a majestic tree that is critically endangered — to the small — a microscopic single-celled organism discovered in an aquarium with no obvious connection to any known species.

They include a fish that has survived in the deepest, darkest part of the Pacific Ocean — at record depth — with credit for its discovery going to a team of scientists led by a University of Washington researcher.

The list of new species also includes a rare great ape — an orangutan that has been identified as a separate species — as well as a prehistoric marsupial lion identified from fossils found in Australia.

The 11th annual list is compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York.

College President Quentin Wheeler, the founding director of the institute, said the annual list demonstrates the value of species exploration and diversity.

“I’m constantly amazed at how many new species show up and the range of things that are discovered,” he said in a news release.

“We name about 18,000 per year but we think at least 20,000 per year are going extinct,” Wheeler said. “So many of these species — if we don’t find them, name them and describe them now — will be lost forever.

“And yet they can teach us so much about the intricacies of ecosystems and the details of evolutionary history,” he added. “Each of them has found a way to survive against the odds of changing competition, climate and environmental conditions. So each can teach us something really worth knowing as we face an uncertain environmental future ourselves.”

Wheeler blames humans for the high rate of extinctions. “At this stage, it’s us,” he explained. “People are altering habitats and changing the climate. As inconvenient as it might be to adapt to climate change with our crops and relocate cities in the most extreme scenarios, what we can’t do is bring back species once they’re gone.”

The top-10 list is made public each year around May 23 to recognize the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Swire’s Snailfish: Deepest fish in the sea

Pseudoliparis swirei

Its appearance reveals nothing about its character, but a fish that lives in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean must be doing right. The newly named Swire’s snailfish (Pseudoliparis swirei) is about 4 inches long with a translucent, tadpole-like body with no scales — and no other fish on Earth has been found in a deeper location.

Large numbers of the new species were captured in baited traps in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific at depths between 22,000 and 26,000 feet (between 4 and 5 miles deep). One fish was recorded on camera at 27,000 feet, but without a specimen researchers could not be confirm it as the same species.

A scientific paper describing the fish was published in November in Zootaxa, and Michelle Ma of UW News reported on the discovery.

“This is the deepest fish that’s been collected from the ocean floor, and we’re very excited to have an official name,” lead author Mackenzie Gerringer, a postdoctoral researcher at UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, was quoted as saying. “They don’t look very robust or strong for living in such an extreme environment, but they are extremely successful.”

Mackenzie also spoke with Craig Welch of National Geographic, who said the pressures that the fish endure are equal to the weight of 1,600 elephants.

“There are real limitations to life in these trenches,” she said. “They have evolved adaptations to that pressure to keep their enzymes functioning and membranes moving.”

P. swirei belongs to the snailfish family, Liparidae. Among the family’s more than 400 named species are fish found at all depths, from intertidal pools to the deepest reaches. It is believed that about 27,000 feet is a physiological limit, meaning that no fish can live in water any deeper.

Other info:

Tapanuli Orangutan: Endangered great ape

Pongo tapanuliensis

Orangutan // Photo: Andrew Walmsley

Genomic evidence has revealed that a small, isolated population of Sumatran orangutans is so distinct from other orangutans in the region that they should be considered a separate species. With only about 800 known individuals remaining, Pongo tapanuliensis becomes the most endangered population of great apes in the world.

In 2001, the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo, which had been considered one species, were recognized as two: Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmaeus. Before naming the new species, an international team of researchers examined the morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence of the various orangutan populations. Genomic evidence shows that the new species — isolated at the southern limit of the range occupied by Sumatran orangutans — diverged from other orangutans some 3.4 million years ago, whereas the northern Sumatra and Borneo species separated about 674,000 years ago.

The importance of this finding was quickly recognized, as the estimated 800 individuals live in fragmented habitat spread out over 250,000 acres in forested hillsides with elevations ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 feet.

Size of the new species is similar to other orangutans, with female heights under 4 feet and males under 5 feet. Researchers discuss the unique characteristics of the new species and how it was identified in “The Conversation.” Meanwhile, several conservation groups continue their efforts to save the last orangutans from extinction.

Orangutans are considered great apes — although eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans.

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Atlantic forest tree

Dinizia jueirana-facao

Brazilian tree // Photo: Gwilym P. Lewis

More than 10 years ago, the biodiversity manager at a forest reserve in Brazil sent taxonomic researchers samples from a large tree that he believed was different from other trees in the region. After much work, the tree was revealed to be a new species of the genus Dinizia, which until last year had been represented by only one species, D. excels.

The new species, Dinizia jueirana-facao, grows up to 130 feet tall and rises majestically above the surrounding canopy of semi-deciduous, riparian trees in Atlantic Forest. The new species is smaller than its closest relative and has been found only in and near to the forest reserve, Reserva Natural Vale in northern Espirito Santo, Brazil. So far, only about 25 individual trees have been found, with about half in the protected area.

Like the large parent tree, its woody fruits are impressive, reaching about 18 inches long.

More than 2,000 species of vertebrate animals live in the Atlantic Forest, including almost 200 endemic species of birds. This forest is home to more than half of the threatened animal species in Brazil. The critical habitat has been severely reduced and fragmented, leaving perhaps 15 percent of what had once been a connected ecosystem of more than 330 million acres.

Read about the discovery and the scientific description of the new tree in Kew Bulletin via Springer.

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Protist: Aquarium to enigma

Ancoracysta twista

Protist // Photo: Denis V. Tiknonenkov

Discovered on brain coral in a tropical aquarium in San Diego, a single-celled protist has challenged scientists to determine its nearest relatives. It does not fit neatly within any known group of organisms, and nobody knows where it may have come from.

Early lineage has been linked to the domain Eukaryota, the highest taxonomic rank, and this new species features a rich mitochondrial genome. Eukaryotes are organisms with cells that have their genetic material bound within a nuclear membrane. Prokaryotes, found in the domains of bacteria and archaea, lack such an organized nucleus.

Eukaryotes include single-celled protists as well as a vast array multi-celled organisms, including animals, plants and fungi.

The new species, named Ancoracysta twista, is a predatory flagellate that uses its whip-like flagella to propel itself through the water. Its harpoon-like organelles, called ancoracysts, can immobilize other protists on which it feeds.

Researchers say the unusually large number of genes in its mitochondrial genome opens a window into the early evolution of eukaryotic organisms. A search for close relatives will be an ongoing challenge following the discovery of this new species at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

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Amphipod: Hunchback creature

Epimeria Quasimodo

Amphipod
Photo: Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, ©Royal Belgian Institute

An amphipod, about 2 inches long, has been named Epimeria Quasimodo, after Victor Hugo’s character, Quasimodo the hunchback. Featuring a somewhat humped back, the new species is among 26 new species of amphipods of the genus Epimeria that have been identified in the Southern Ocean.

With incredible spines and vivid colors, the genus Epimeria includes both free-swimming predators and sessile filter feeders, and it has taken on an iconic status among biologists studying the creatures. The genus is abundant in the glacial waters circulating south of the Polar Front, and their crested adornments are reminiscent of mythological dragons, they say.

When a treatment of the genus was published in 2007, many researchers assumed that the species were rather completely known. But, by studying the morphology and DNA evidence, two Belgian investigators demonstrated just how little is known of these spectacular invertebrates.

See Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

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Baffling Beetle: Camouflaged hitchhiker

Nymphister kronaueri

Hitchhiking beetle // Photo: ©C. von Beeren

A tiny beetle in Costa Rica, newly named Nymphister kronaueri, survives among ants by pretending to be a piece of the ant’s body.

At just 1.5 millimeters, the beetle goes for long travels with army ants, Eciton mexicanum, which never builds permanent nests but instead spends two or three weeks on the move as they capture prey, then lay up in one location for the next two or three weeks.

The hitchhiking beetle can move about and feed while the host colony is stationary, but it must be ready to catch a ride when the ants take off on their next trip.

The beetle’s body is the precise size, shape and color of the abdomen of a worker ant. The beetle uses its mouthparts to grab the skinny portion of the host abdomen and hang on, appearing as a second abdomen. In addition to their appearance, they use chemical signals and other adaptations to avoid becoming prey themselves, but exactly how they fool the ants remains a subject of investigation.

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Heterotrophic Flower: Magnificent moocher

Sciaphila sugimotoi

Symbiotic plant // Photo: Takaomi Sugimoto

Most plants are autotrophic, meaning they feed themselves by capturing solar energy through photosynthesis. A few, like the newly discovered S. sugimotoi, are heterotrophic, meaning they cannot produce their own food and must depend on other organisms.

This new species of plant is symbiotic with a fungus, which provides nutrition, and neither species is harmed during the process. It turns out that this new plant is part of a family, Triuridaceae, made up of individuals that all derive their nutrients from symbiotic fungi, thus they are called mycoheterotrophs.

The new plant, which features a beautiful flower, was discovered on Ishigaki Island in Japan, which has added to its acclaim, since most plants found in Japan have been well documented over a long period of time.

The delicate S. sugimotoi, which grows to just under 4 inches, appears during short flowering times in September and October, producing small blossoms. The species is considered critically endangered, as it has been identified in only two locations on the island where about 50 plants were found growing in an evergreen broadleaf forest. Like other fungal symbionts, the species depends on a stable ecosystem for survival.

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Volcanic Bacterium: Emergent with volcano

Thiolava veneris

Colonizing bacteria
Photo: Miquel Canals, U. of Barcelona, Spain

When the submarine volcano Tagoro erupted off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands in 2011, it abruptly increased the water temperature, decreased the oxygen level and released massive quantities of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, wiping out much of the existing marine ecosystem.

Three years later, scientists found the first living colonizers in this newly deposited area, including a new species of proteobacteria that produces long, hairlike structures composed of bacterial cells within a sheath.

The bacteria formed a massive white mat extending nearly half an acre around the summit of the newly formed Tagoro volcanic cone at depths of about 430 feet. Scientists who studied the bacteria concluded that unique metabolic characteristics allow the bacteria grow under such stark conditions. Early colonies of this newly discovered bacteria could pave the way for successional development of plant and animal communities. The researchers dubbed the filamentous bacterial mat “Venus’ hair” and named the bacteria Thiolava veneris.

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Marsupial Lion: Ferocious fossil

Wakaleo schouteni

Marsupial lion // Illustration: Peter Schouten

About 25 million years ago, a marsupial lion, newly named Wakaleo schouteni, roamed Australia’s open forest habitat in northwestern Queensland.

Scientists from the University of New South Wales recovered fossils in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland that came to be associated with a previously unknown marsupial lion.

Weighing about 50 pounds — more or less the size of a Siberian husky dog — this predator spent part of its time in trees. Its teeth suggest that it was not completely reliant on meat but was, rather, an omnivore.

Two species of marsupial lions may have been present during the later Oligocene epoch, which ended with the Miocene 23 million years ago. The other, Wakaleo pitikantensis, was slightly smaller and was identified from teeth and limb bones discovered near Lake Pitikanta in South Australia in 1961.

Evolution of the Australian creatures seemed to follow Cope’s rule — named after American paleontologist Edward Cope — that suggests an increasing body size over time, perhaps because of the ability to eat larger prey and go longer between meals as the climate grew drier and cooler and the plants underwent major changes.

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Cave Beetle: Changes in the dark

Xuedytes bellus

Cave beetle // Photo: Sunbin Huang and Mingyi Tian

A variety of beetles that become adapted to life in the permanent darkness of caves often resemble one another in a suite of characteristics: compact body; elongated, spider-like appendages; and loss of flight wings, eyes and pigmentation. A newly discovered species of beetle in China seems to have taken such changes to an extreme.

These cave-dwelling beetles provide an example of convergent evolution, as unrelated species take on similar characteristics over evolutionary time as they become better adapted to extreme conditions. The new species of ground beetle, less than half an inch long, features a dramatic elongation of its head and prothorax — the body segment immediately behind the head to which the first pair of legs attach.

Xuedytes bellus was discovered in a cave in Du’an, Guangxi Province, China, known for its large number of caves that have become home to the world’s most diverse collection of cave-dwelling ground beetles found in the subfamily Trichinae, family Carabidae. To date, more than 130 species, representing nearly 50 genera, have been described from China.

See research article in ZooKeys

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World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

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

Peter Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

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

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

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

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other great wildlife cams:

Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amusing Monday: Young artists inspired by endangered species

I’m hoping you will enjoy another dose of kids’ art, this time related to endangered species. An art contest was recently completed in concert with the 13th annual Endangered Species Day, which was this past Friday.

“Hawksbill Sea Turtle” by grand prize winner Brandon Xie, a fourth-grader in Lexington, Mass.
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

More than 1,500 students from around the United States entered this year’s “Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest,” according to organizers. The goal of the contest is to encourage public appreciation for imperiled wildlife and to increase support for saving endangered species.

“The artwork created by this generation of young people is clearly demonstrating how they think deeply about the plight of endangered species,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, which sponsors the contest. “It is clear that they recognize not just our role in impacting wildlife and plants, but also our opportunities to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Each work of art is an inspiration to all of us to do more, to save more,” she said in a statement.

“Humpback Whale” by first-place winner Erin Dong, a ninth grader from Santa Clara, Calif.
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The grand prize winner is Brandon Xie, a fourth-grader in Lexington, Mass. He received his award last week in Washington, D.C., during a reception of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. His prize will include art supplies and a lesson from a professional wildlife artist.

The first-place winner in the art contest is Erin Dong, a ninth grader from Santa Clara, Calif. Top winners in the various grade categories:

  • Kindergarten-second grade: Sean Lam, a first-grader in Great Neck, N.Y.
  • Grades 3-5: : Kyle Xu, a third-grader in East Brunswick, N.J.
  • Grades 6-8: Maggie Wu, a sixth-grader in Great Neck, N.Y.
  • Grades 9-12: Colin Phillips, an 11th-grader in Ikemos, Mich.

See all the winners on the Endangered Species Coalition website.

“Blue-tailed Skink” by kindergarten-second grade winner Sean Lam, a first-grader in Great Neck, N.Y.
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

Contest winners were selected by a panel of prestigious artists, photographers and conservationists, who first narrowed down the entries to 40 semi-finalists (10 for each category). The artwork can be viewed by following links on the Endangered Species Coalition website.

Judges included Wyland, a renowned marine life artist; Jack Hanna, host of Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild; David Littschwager, a freelance photographer and contributor to National Geographic Magazine; Susan Middletown, a photographer whose work has been published in four books; and Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution.

The Endangered Species Coalition recently celebrated the successful recovery of 12 listed species. The 12 species and their descriptions can be found on the ESC blog:

  • Bald eagle
  • American alligator
  • Green sea turtle
  • Piping plover
  • Peregrine falcon
  • Channel Island fox
  • Humpback whale
  • Puerto Rican parrot
  • Robbins’ Cinquefoil
  • Whooping crane
  • Brown pelican
  • California condor

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.

The old roadway across the estuary acted like a dam to impede flows upstream and downstream.
Photo: Stillwaters Environmental Center

Replacement of a 5-foot culvert with the bridge over the estuary has obvious benefits for salmon that must fight the current to go upstream to spawn, Joleen told me, but people may not appreciate the importance of the much-expanded salt marsh.

When the roadbed was installed nearly a century ago, it formed a dam, causing water in the stream to back up, which encouraged freshwater vegetation. The saltwater influence was greatly reduced, and critical nutrients coming downstream were deposited before they reached Puget Sound.

The new bridge will allow saltwater to come and go with the tides and for nutrients to flow out more freely. Juvenile salmon coming downstream can pause to grow and acclimate to the saltier conditions they will face.

Salt marshes, which were filled in all too often years ago, are considered highly productive, because dead organic material — detritus — from the stream and estuary feeds bacteria, insects, worms and a multitude of other tiny creatures at the base of the food web.

“Salt marshes are really detritus-based ecosystems,” Joleen said. “You have many invertebrates that eat the detritus and other decomposers. The food sources reach out into the estuary and nearshore habitat to fuel the marine food web. It is not insignificant that the area is now opened up.”

Side channels in the marsh will provide refuge for young fish to grow before they head out to sea. To varying extents, the stream, marsh and estuary are expected to support coho, chinook and chum salmon along with steelhead and cutthroat trout.

Volunteers and students have been monitoring conditions in the watershed to measure the changes taking place. The latest addition to the monitoring effort is an ongoing search for the invasive European green crab. The volunteer program, called the Crab Team, is managed by Washington Sea Grant.

“The estuary is still some distance from known populations of invasive European green crab,” writes Cindi Nevins, a North Kitsap resident who joined the team, “but if the green crabs ever do arrive at Carpenter Creek, they will find exactly the kind of space they love: salt marsh channels, marsh vegetation and quiet lagoon-like waters. Why do we think they’ll love it? Because hairy shore crabs (Hemigrapsus oregonensis) do!”

Throughout Puget Sound, Crab Team members catch and identify hundreds of thousands of crabs in marsh habitat suitable for both the natives and the invaders. The volunteers hope never to catch a green crab, but some green crabs have been found in a few places in Northern Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. By intensifying the trapping effort, the Crab Team hopes to eradicate the invaders, or at least keep them under control.

Cindi’s report, published in the Crab Team’s newsletter, goes on to describe the challenge of catching crabs in the Carpenter Creek marsh, which often drains completely at low tide. Because the traps must be kept submerged to be effective, the volunteers are often forced to set the traps in the evening as the tide comes in and retrieve them early the next morning before the tide goes out.

To celebrate completion of the new bridge, everyone is invited to celebrate “Estuary Restoration Day” on Saturday, June 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Stillwaters Environmental Center, 26059 Barber Cut Off Road, Kingston.

The program will include guided tours to the marsh, live music, food and a native plant sale. Those involved with various aspects of the project will receive special recognition.

For information and videos about the marsh, visit the Stillwaters website.

The new bridge over Big Anderson Creek near Holly is nearly twice as long as the old one.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The bridge over Big Anderson Creek near Holly is more of a highway-safety project than an ecosystem-restoration effort. The wooden bridge, 67 years old, was the last bridge in Kitsap County to be rated structurally deficient because of its overall poor condition. Check out the story in the Kitsap Sun by reporter Ed Friedrich.

Still, the new concrete bridge, which spans 50 feet of stream, is nearly twice as long as the old bridge. That will allow the stream to meander more naturally and at a rate that sandbars can form nearby. At high flows, the stream won’t be squeezed as much through the space under the bridge.

The old wooden bridge over Big Anderson Creek was rated structurally deficient by inspectors.
Photo: Kitsap County Public Works

By the way, the official name of the stream is “Anderson Creek,” allowing confusion with two other streams named “Anderson” in Kitsap County alone. I prefer to call it “Big Anderson,” in conformance to tradition by area residents and local institutions. For a further explanation of the issue, read Water Ways, June 22, 2017.

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.

This sense of loss reminds me of the feeling I get sometimes while driving past Arby’s in East Bremerton. I recall the beautiful stand of trees that survived next door to the restaurant through all kinds of commercial strip development. It was a rare refuge for birds and small wildlife. One day those large trees were all gone, cut down for their dollar value — out of sight but hard to forget.

I am encouraged by the serious kelp-recovery efforts undertaken by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, led by Betsy Peabody and her staff of brilliant and dedicated ecologists. Their goal is to find ways to restart the growth of kelp in suitable areas.

I recently wrote about the work of PSRF’s Brian Allen for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, after he spoke at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle. Inspired by the hope of kelp recovery, Brian has been developing techniques to get the kelp to grow and self-propagate without supervision.

For about eight years, Brian has been observing a shrinking kelp bed just outside Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor. “It has been in steady decline,” he told me, “and for the last couple of years there is nothing showing on the surface.”

Because kelp is so important to Puget Sound’s threatened and endangered species, the work of restoring kelp forests is considered critical. That’s especially true for rockfish, some of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although it hasn’t been formally proposed, I would suggest that authorities consider finding new places for kelp to grow, perhaps by adding rocks upon which the kelp can attach. These would be not be places already occupied by eelgrass or other vegetation that helps to build a healthy food web.

Studies have shown that kelp can help offset the effects of ocean acidification, at least locally around the kelp beds themselves. While taking up carbon dioxide, they produce oxygen and help to relieve conditions that dissolve the shells of key species. Check out the story by Phuong Le of The Associated Press, who wrote about the PSRF’s work, and see the second video on this page.

While kelp’s benefits as a primary producer have been discussed through the years, researchers at the University of California – Santa Barbara recently concluded that the structure of giant kelp could be even more important. Kelp helps to slow water currents and provides shady habitat on the bottom. See the paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society along with a report by Julie Cohen of UCSB.

The causes of kelp forest decline in Puget Sound are not well understood, but the good news is that overall abundance of kelp in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the Washington Coast has been fairly stable since they were first mapped in the early 1900s.

The story of those early kelp surveys is pretty interesting. Kelp was considered a potential source of potash, used for fertilizer and even gunpowder. At the time, German mines were a major source of potash, but U.S. officials realized they needed another source, given a growing German belligerence before World Way I. A 1915 report by Frank Cameron for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is available online.

Check out last year’s story by Matt Wood of the University of Chicago, where the survey maps are archived. A study comparing the extent of kelp beds from the early 1900s to today was conducted by UC professor Catherine Pfister along with Helen Berry of the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Tom Mumford, formerly with the DNR.

Voluntary no-go area on San Juan Island stirs conflict over orcas

Fishermen in the San Juan Islands are being asked to make sacrifices this summer to help Puget Sound’s fish-eating killer whales. Whether the voluntary actions will make much difference is open to speculation.

A voluntary “no-go zone” for boats cruising the western shoreline of San Juan Island has been announced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Boaters are asked to stay one-quarter mile offshore for most of the island’s west side. A half-mile protective zone around Lime Kiln Lighthouse is part of the voluntary no-go zone. (See map.)

“This voluntary no-go zone is a good step in helping to reduce human impacts in an important foraging area for Southern Resident killer whales,” Penny Becker, WDFW’s policy lead on killer whales, said in a news release.

Years ago, the western shoreline of San Juan Island was a primary hangout for whales, which eat mostly chinook salmon during the summer months. In recent years, however, declines in chinook runs have reduced the time spent by the whales in any one location, so the effects of the voluntary closure are likely to be muted.

The Southern Resident orcas are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Their declining numbers inspired Gov. Jay Inslee to consider emergency actions to save the species from extinction, and he appointed a task force to come up with recommendations later this year.

The idea of protecting the whales by reducing fishing seasons was considered all during negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers this spring in a discussion known as the North of Falcon process. Fishing seasons were reduced, in part to protect low numbers of chinook salmon returning to Hood Canal and critical streams in northern Puget Sound.

After the negotiations were complete, the National Marine Fisheries Service called for additional specific steps to protect the killer whales. The agency — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — oversees efforts to recover endangered marine mammals and has the authority to approve or deny annual fishing plans.

“This step will help support killer whale recovery and prevents a potential delay in federal approval for our salmon fisheries throughout the entire Sound,” said Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s fish program.

Given the reduced chinook fishing scheduled this year, the voluntary no-go zone is a difficult request to make of anglers, Warren acknowledged.

It isn’t clear how much the quarter-mile closure zone will help the orcas, even if every boater complies with the voluntary measure. The goal is to offer the whales more fish to eat and to reduce the noise and interference of boats, which can affect their ability to hunt for salmon.

The measure could help some whales for brief periods, but it won’t affect the overall population, said Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher who knows the whales well.

“It is a feel-good maneuver, and that is fine,” said Ken, who is a member of the governor’s killer whale task force. “The whales aren’t even here most of the time. I’m glad that this issue has the government’s attention, but this is an insignificant step.”

Lately, Ken has been promoting the removal of dams on the Snake River to boost wild runs of chinook in the Columbia River, since the whales forage along the coast, especially in the winter.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has set aside money to boost chinook production in state hatcheries, but implementation of that program is still underway.

For commercial whale-watching boats, the newly announced no-go zone will have minimal effect, since most follow the guidelines of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said Jeff Friedman, the association’s president for the U.S. The same goes for private whale-watch boats that follow those guidelines.

“We have guidelines that go beyond state and federal regulations,” Jeff said, noting that the association’s voluntary guidelines already keep whale-watching boats well offshore when orcas are present. The guidelines are identical to the voluntary no-go zone, except that the no-go zone extends the closure area by about three miles — to the southern tip of the island.

Those most likely to be affected by the voluntary closure are sport fishermen, who move in close to shore to catch salmon that come through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and follow the San Juan Island shoreline during their migration. The no-go zone could really hurt the fishing business, according to Brett Rosson, who operates charter boats out of Anacortes.

“In August and September, this is our primary fishery,” he said, noting that sport fishermen were forced to give up chinook fishing in the area during most of September this year to protect low runs elsewhere in Puget Sound. The no-go zone calls for giving up August as well, he asserted.

Brett argues that anglers’ effects on killer whales are minuscule, because the orcas are so rarely around San Juan Island and because the fishermen take so few fish. His boats, which carry from 14 to 20 people, might take four chinook on a good day, he said.

“Killer whales are traveling all over the place and feeding at night,” he said. “You are going to kill a prime fishing spot for a political, symbolic move.”

It would be one thing if the whales were being hurt by fishing, he said, or if the no-go zone were in effect only when whales are present. The real culprits are the salmon-eating seals and sea lions, which nobody wants to deal with, he added. Meanwhile, commercial fishermen have been declared exempt from the no-go zone and will go fishing as originally planned.

As long as the no-go zone is voluntary, Brett said he will go fishing in conformance with this year’s fishing rules. But he acknowledges that there could be a downside to his actions.

“I think we are being set up,” he said. “Next year, they will say that since you don’t respect the whales, we will make this a permanent closure.”

Norm Reinhardt of the Kitsap Poggie Club said many residents of Puget Sound who enjoy annual trips to the San Juan Islands won’t go this year because of confusion over the voluntary exclusion zones. And future years might be ruled out if formal regulations are approved to close the area for good.

Ron Warren of WDFW said anglers have more opportunity this year to fish for coho salmon than in recent years, and ongoing efforts to restore chinook will benefit both human fishers and killer whales. For information about this year’s salmon fisheries, go to the North of Falcon website.

Amusing Monday: Wacky steelhead return for new ‘Survive the Sound’ game

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that features cute little fish swimming for their lives, is back for a second year with some new additions, including free participation for students and teachers in the classroom.

The basics of the game remain as I described them last year. You pick out a wacky cartoon steelhead and then receive daily reports as the fish makes its way through a perilous Puget Sound over a 12-day period. The journey starts May 7, and signups are now open. See Water Ways, April 29, 2017.

As in real life, many fish will not make it to the ocean because of the effects of disease and pollution along with the constant risk of predation. But a few lucky steelhead will survive, and the winners will be recognized.

Individuals join the game with a $25 donation to Long Live the Kings, which will use the money to further research, ecosystem restoration and education. This year, anyone can start a team and encourage others to participate, sharing the joy or heartbreak of the salmon migration. Prizes will be awarded to the winning teams.

This year, teachers can sign up their classrooms for free and play the game while learning about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Extensive educational materials have been developed to go along with the game. Check out “Bring ‘Survive the Sound’ to your Classroom!”

The game is based on the real-life travels of steelhead, which have been tracked using implanted acoustic transmitters. Some fish swim faster than others and some even reverse course. This year, participants will be able to watch the progress of all of the fish making the journey, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings.

Last year, more than 1,100 people joined the game, and organizers hope for even greater participation this year.

If nothing else, you should check out the cartoon fish and the clever things they have to say by clicking on the individual steelhead in the “Survive the Sound” fish list.

If you would like to learn more about the person who turned the concepts for these odd and wonderful fish into creative works of art, check out “Meet the Artist Behind Survive the Sound.” To see more of Jocelyn Li Langrand’s work, go to her website, her Instagram page or Facebook.

Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories: