Category Archives: Invasive species

New facts and findings about the European green crab invasion

The ongoing story of the European green crab invasion offers us scientific, social and even psychological drama, which I would like to update by mentioning four new developments:

  1. The somewhat mysterious finding of a partially eaten green crab on the Bellingham waterfront,
  2. A “story map” that spells out much of what we know about European green crabs in Puget Sound, including maps, photos and videos.
  3. Information about Harper Estuary in South Kitsap and other areas where groups of citizen scientists are on the lookout for green crabs, and
  4. Reports of a new breed of European green crab in Maine that attacks people and may prove to be more destructive than the green crabs that have lived in the area for a very long time.
Green crab found in Bellingham

Since my last report on green crabs (Water Ways, May 9), a partially eaten carcass of an invasive crab was spotted along the Bellingham waterfront in Squalicum Harbor, where the crab was being eaten by a seagull.

Partially eaten European green crab found on the Bellingham waterfront
Photo: Angela Foster/WDFW

The big question, which might never be answered, is where did this crab come from? If it grew up locally, it would be the first sign of a green crab anywhere in Whatcom County. Since 2016, a trapping program designed specifically to catch green crabs — including two monitoring stations near Bellingham — has turned up no green crabs in the area.

The seagull could have caught the crab from the bay or nearby shorelines, or sport or commercial crab harvesters could have dumped the crab from their pots, according to Emily Grason, who manages the Crab Team volunteer trapping effort for Washington Sea Grant.

Casey Pruett, director of Marine Life Center in Bellingham, spotted the gull eating the crab at the boat ramp adjacent to the center in the busy Squalicum Harbor marina, Emily noted. Casey told her that green crabs have never been reported in crab pots in the harbor nor along the shoreline.

Marinas are often home to large Dungeness and rock crabs, which are good competitors and even predators of green crab, Emily wrote in the Crab Team Blog.

“In our region, green crab tend to do best in very muddy isolated habitats, such as saltwater lagoons, pocket estuaries and salt marshes,” she wrote. “If green crab become abundant enough elsewhere, however, some population spillover could occur into habitats like marinas where they have lower survivorship.”

The hunt for European green crabs throughout Puget Sound is meant to provide an early warning to hold the population in check wherever the invaders first show up. On the East Coast, where the crabs have become established, they have been known to eat large numbers of shellfish and destroy important habitat, such as eelgrass beds.

The single partially eaten crab in Bellingham has set off cautionary alarm bells, but since the discovery at the end of May, the monitoring traps have captured no other green crabs. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is planning a more extensive trapping effort next month, Emily told me.

Meanwhile, 44 green crabs have been trapped so far this season along Dungeness Bay near Sequim, which has turned out to be a hotbed of invaders. That number is fairly close to what was seen during the same time period the past two years, so we can hope that the population is not expanding. Another single crab was trapped in nearby Sequim Bay, but a more extensive trapping effort turned up no additional green crabs.

Green crab “story map”

In a new “story map” produced in a collaboration between Puget Sound Institute and Washington Sea Grant, the viewer is able to scroll through text, maps and video that explains what researchers know about the European green crab invasion.

An entertaining and instructive video from 2016 recounts the first sighting of a green crab in Puget Sound, following years of trapping that thankfully never caught a green crab. The video was produced by Katie Campbell of EarthFix, a partnership of public radio and television stations in the Northwest. A second video, produced in 2017 by the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, updates the story with images from Dungeness Spit.

The expansion of the green crab population is mapped on a worldwide,
West Coast and Puget Sound scale. The impacts of the crab and efforts to keep the population under control are described in the story map, along with a practical outlook for long-term success.

The production can be launched from this page. Be sure to click on the full-screen option. The project is housed on the UW’s ArcGIS online portal, where one can find other interesting projects.

Credit for the design of the story map goes to Kris Symer of Puget Sound Institute. Emily Grason provided scientific expertise and editing of the material.

Harper Estuary crab hunt

In many areas of Puget Sound, community volunteers get together regularly to participate in a ongoing hunt for green crabs in their local waters, a hunt they hope will not be successful. I first wrote about the Crab Team in 2016 for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Coincidentally, my story, which featured volunteers at Zelatched Point on Hood Canal, was published just a month before the first green crab in Puget Sound was found in the San Juan Islands.

Earlier this year, I joined another team of volunteer scientists on Fidalgo Bay, where a single shell of a green crab was found last year. The story, also published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, was mostly about the state’s aquatic reserves and how citizen scientists play a key role in studying the environmentally valuable areas. On the outing, I was able to see how the volunteers measured the spawning success of surf smelt in the bay.

One thing I noticed in these and other citizen-science excursions is a high level of camaraderie among the folks working together, learning together, sharing laughs and enjoying nature. For those interested in science, there are plenty of opportunities in the Puget Sound region.

Restoration of Harper Estuary: Phase 1 restores the shoreline. Phase 2 is a future bridge to replace a portion of the causeway at #6. // Graphic converted from Kitsap County poster

I’m hoping to compile a list of all the citizen science projects taking place throughout Puget Sound. If you are involved in a group that could use more members, please send me a link to the program’s website or the email address of an organizer. I will try to keep the list updated for those who would like to join a group. It would be great if such a list already existed, but I have not found one with good contact information. One can search on the internet for the term “citizen science, Puget Sound” or a more specific location.

Meanwhile, Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant has posted a nice description of South Kitsap’s Harper Estuary, which is undergoing a major shoreline restoration. Community members are monitoring for marine life, including shoreline vegetation. Green crabs have not been found so far, but more than 5,000 hairy shore crabs were caught in traps there during the first two seasons, as shown in the graphic accompanying Jeff’s blog post.

I’ve written about Harper Estuary on several occasions, but I was intrigued by several bits of history from Jeff that I had never heard before.

For general information about joining the Crab Team or looking for green crabs on your own, check out “Get involved with Crab Team” on the Crab Team website.

Aggressive invaders in Maine

I’m waiting for someone to write a horror story about a new breed of aggressive European green crab that would rather attack people than run from them.

David Sharp, a reporter for the Associated Press, wrote about these new arrivals under the headline: “Canadian crabs with bad attitude threaten coastal ecosystem.”

The story tells us about an aggressive European green crab that has migrated to Maine form Nova Scotia in Canada.

“What we’re seeing is this insane level of aggressiveness,” said Markus Frederich, a professor at the University of New England who is studying the new invaders.

“Anytime I went down to grab one, they went to grab me instead,” he was quoted as saying. “They are the most aggressive crabs ever seen. We don’t understand yet why they are so aggressive.”

Frederich worries that the crabs may be more destructive than the green crabs that were introduced to the U.S. East Coast 200 years ago. “The crabs have a high potential for destroying soft-shell clams, eelgrass beds and who knows what else,” he said.

In a head-to-head test, subject crabs of both varieties were placed in an eelgrass bed. The Canadian invaders “shredded the eelgrass like Edward Scissorhands in their efforts to scarf down marine organisms seeking refuge,” Sharp wrote in his story.

The two strains of green crab are believed to originate from different parts of Europe, arriving at different times and in different parts of North America. One theory is that the aggression is gene-related, perhaps a result of hybridization of the two varieties of the same species.

The first green crab was discovered in Long Island Sound in 1817, according to Emily Grason, who provided some background information in response to questions from Crab Team members curious about the aggressive crabs. They wanted to know if we should be worried about them in the Pacific Northwest.

Once the invasion started, the population spread mostly northward along the East Coast, with southward movements apparently limited by warm temperatures and native blue crabs, she said.

The second strain of crabs arrived in the 1980s. Genetic evidence suggests it came from a more northern region of Europe and established themselves in a more northern part of the East Coast. Though some news stories have mentioned “mutant” crabs, Emily says the two types of European green crabs are simply distinct “haplotypes” of the same species, because they remained genetically isolated from each other.

Studies linking behavior to genetics is underway in Frederich’s lab at the University of New England. He has even placed green crabs on a treadmill, but results of his work have not yet been published. As a result, we don’t know what temperature range and other habitat conditions are favorable to the northern variety. Review the UNE news release.

If interstate and international shipping companies are careful about their practices involving invasive species — such as treating ballast water in ships — we might not see a second wave of green crabs on the West Coast.

Can volunteer trappers halt the green crab invasion in Puget Sound?

The war against the invasive European green crab continues in Puget Sound, as this year’s Legislature offers financial support, while the Puget Sound Crab Team responds to crabs being caught for the first time in Samish Bay in North Puget Sound and at Kala Point near Port Townsend.

In other parts of the country where green crabs have become established, the invaders have destroyed native shoreline habitat, diminished native species and cost shellfish growers millions of dollars in damages. See Environmental Protection Agency report (PDF 1.3 mb).

European green crab trapping sites in Puget Sound.
Map: Washington Sea Grant

In Puget Sound, it’s hard to know whether the crabs are being trapped and removed rapidly enough to defeat the invasion, but so far humans seem to be holding their own, according to Emily Grason, who manages the Crab Team volunteer trapping effort for Washington Sea Grant.

“The numbers are still in line with what we saw the past two years,” Emily told me. “Since the numbers have not exploded, to me that is quite a victory. In other parts of the world, they have been known to increase exponentially.”

The largely volunteer Crab Team program is focused on placing baited traps at 56 sites in Puget Sound, as shown in the first map on this page. About 220 trained volunteers are involved in that work, with various federal, state and tribal agencies adding about 40 additional people.

Last year, 69 78 crabs were caught in the traps. All but eight of those were on or near Dungeness Spit, where officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have increased their trapping in an effort to catch every crab willing to crawl into a trap. The agency manages the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.

In Samish Bay, east of the San Juan Islands in North Puget Sound, three green crabs — including a female bearing eggs — were captured in January while shellfish growers were tending to shellfish beds in the bay. This was the first time that green crabs have been caught in the winter, when they usually move offshore, according to Emily. For that reason, the overall trapping program begins in April and ends in September. But far out on the mudflats, during a low tide, the crabs might be found by those working the shellfish beds. See Emily’s Crab Team blog post from Jan. 23.

Staffers at Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve added a fifth trapping site in an extremely muddy area of Samish Bay, an area that would be tough for volunteers to monitor, Emily said.

A new Port Gamble site was added in an effort to detect any crabs that may have arrived during their larval stage and begun to grow. Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula is considered to be in the proximity of Kala Point near Port Townsend, where a single green crab was found in September, just before the end of the trapping season. Further extensive trapping located another green crab in nearby Scow Bay between Indian and Marrowstone islands. See Emily’s Crab Team blog post from Sept. 25.

The monitoring at Point Julia in Port Gamble Bay will be managed by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, which may propose additional sites in the area.

Based on research since the Crab Team was formed in 2015, more crabs are caught in May than any other month, Emily told me, so everyone is waiting to see what shows up this month. As the waters warm and the crabs go out in search of food, they may become more vulnerable to trapping. So far this spring, 16 green crabs have been trapped along Dungeness Spit with one from nearby Sequim Bay.

Another big trapping month comes in August, before the crabs move offshore, she said.

The trapping effort is geared to catching as many crabs as possible at a young age, because a large population of breeding adults in any location could threaten to spread the infestation throughout Puget Sound. Having Crab Team volunteers putting out their traps in strategic locations increases the probability that green crabs will be found before they get established. If needed, larger eradication or control efforts can be launched with the help of other agencies.

As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife added a staffer last year to do spot checking in vulnerable areas not regularly trapped. That increases the chances of detecting an invasion.

For the first time this year, the Legislature funded the Crab Team’s operating budget, which allows Emily and other Crab Team leaders to focus on finding crabs, rather than spending their time searching for funding to keep the program going.

The hope, of course, is that fewer crabs will be caught this year, as an indication that the population is being held in check. It would be nice to think that all the major infestations have been found.

“We hope that this is going to be an easier year,” Emily said, “but we don’t get to determine that. We have to be responsive to whatever happens.”

Officials working along the Washington Coast, led by the Makah Tribe, have their hands full with an invasion that may have started as early as 2014 and has resulted in more than 1,000 green crabs being caught. Check out the story on the website of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The interactive map below allows for selection of trapping sites, locations where crabs have been found and areas with suitable habitat for invaders. For those who would like to get involved in the Crab Team’s efforts, check out Sea Grant’s website and the “Get Involved” page.

This blog post was revised from an earlier version to correct changes in the total number of green crabs found last year and to clarify the overall effort.

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.

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
  • Continue reading

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: Odd-looking pyrosomes more familiar in the tropics

“I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.”English biologist Thomas H. Huxley, 1849

Warmer-than-normal waters off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia may be responsible for an invasion of all sorts of creatures normally found to the south in more tropical waters. None of these animals has attracted more attention than the bright bioluminescent pyrosomes, which showed up last spring as the waters of the Pacific Ocean were returning to normal temperatures.

Pyrosomes — which comes from the Greek word “pyro,” meaning fire, and “soma,” meaning body —are large colonies of small tunicates. These are invertebrates that feed by filtering sea water. The individual tunicates, called zooids, hook together to form tubes. The intake siphon of each zooid is aligned to the outside of the tube, while each discharge siphon is aligned to the inside.

The pyrosomes seen in Northwest waters so far are relatively small, thus fitting their nickname “sea pickles.” Nevertheless, they have impressed scientists who have observed them. The first video, above, was made in late July during the 2017 Nautilus Expedition along the West Coast (Water Ways, Sept. 4).

Hilarie Sorensen, a University of Oregon graduate student, participated in a research cruise in May, traveling from San Francisco to Newport in search of jellyfish that had invaded Northwest waters over the previous two years. She didn’t find the jellies she hoped to see, but she was blown away by the pyrosomes, some more than two feet long, and she wondered what they were up to.

“I am interested in how short- and long-term physical changes in the ocean impact biology,” Hilary was quoted as saying in a UO news release. “With all of these pyrosomes this year, I would like to further explore the relationship between their distribution, size and abundance with local environmental conditions.”

Reporter Craig Welch wrote about the recent findings for National Geographic. He quoted Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center: “For something that’s never really been here before, the densities are just mind-boggling,” she said. “We’re just scratching our heads.”

Even more impressive are the giant pyrosomes that have not shown up in Northwest waters, at least so far. They are rare even in tropical locales. Check out the second video, which shows a pyrosome found in the Canary Islands in North Africa and estimated to be about 12 feet long.

The third video was filmed in Tasmania south of Australia by Michael Baron of Eaglehawk Dive Centre. It shows both a giant pyrosome and a salp, another colonial creature formed of larger individuals. For the full story on the pyrosome, go to the BBC Two program, “Unidentified glowing object: nature’s weirdest events.”

Another good video on YouTube shows a giant pyrosome in the Maldive Islands off southern India.

Oddly enough, pyrosomes seem to light up in response to light, according to information posted on an invertebrate zoology blog at the University of California at Davis. The colonies may also light up in response to electrical stimulation or physical prodding.

When an individual zooid has activated its luminescence, it will trigger a chain reaction throughout the colony with nearby zooids lighting up in turn.

“When many pyrosomes are present in the same general area it’s possible to observe a vivid array of bright, pale lights produced by the many animals,” said Ian Streiter in the blog post.

“It was just this sort of observation that led the great Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) to remark in 1849: ‘I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.’

Ian concluded, “For those lucky enough to be at sea when they’re around, I imagine there are few sights as pleasant as that of the ‘moonlight’ produced by the fire bodies.”

Other information:

Finally, there is this audio report, “Millions of tropical sea creatures invade waters off B.C. coast,” with commentary from Washington state fisherman Dobie Lyons and zooplankton taxonomist Moira Galbraith of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. They appeared on All Points West, CBC Radio, with Jason D’Souza of Victoria.

Puget Sound Partnership may confront net pen controversy

Puget Sound Partnership may take a stand on whether fish farms should be allowed to remain in Puget Sound waters.

The partnership is charged by the Legislature to oversee the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem. On Wednesday, the partnership’s governing body, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, received an update on last month’s collapse of a net pen containing 305,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.

About two-thirds of the escaped fish have been accounted for so far, with about 146,000 found dead or alive in the damaged net pen and about 55,000 caught by fishermen. (All but about 5,000 of those were caught by tribal fishers in Puget Sound.)

This video, taken by a private party and released by state agencies, shows the collapse of the Cypress Island net pens on Aug. 19

About 100,000 Atlantic salmon apparently escaped and have not been caught by people, although most of those probably were eaten by predators, experts say. Officials continue their efforts to figure out where any remaining fish have gone, specifically any that swam up into the streams, according to Amy Windrope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Atlantic salmon, an exotic species in Puget Sound, don’t appear to be eating anything, let alone young native salmon, Windrope said, and there is not much concern that they will breed with native fish. The greatest concern is that they might somehow disrupt the spawning behavior of native salmon, whose populations are already stressed by adverse conditions in both marine and fresh water.

The Atlantic salmon appeared to be healthy and free of parasites at the time of the release, she said, but they became less and less healthy as starvation set in.

In addition to Windrope, the presentation to the Leadership Council included reports from representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the seabed where the pens are located, and the Department of Ecology, which issues permits under water-quality laws.

Puget Sound tribes are about to release a position statement opposing salmon farms in Puget Sound, said Russell Hepfer, a member of the Leadership Council and vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council. He did not elaborate, except to say that the non-native fish don’t belong here.

According to Windrope, the tribes see Atlantic salmon as weeds in the garden of Puget Sound. Such cultural viewpoints should be taken into account in the overall discussion, she added.

Soon after the Cypress Island net pen collapse, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued a moratorium blocking further net pen approvals until an investigation is complete.

Maradel Gale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, addressed the Leadership Council at Wednesday’s meeting near Port Gamble, saying the Bainbridge Island City Council has effectively limited the expansion of net pens at the south end of the island and would like to get rid of net pens altogether.

She said Cooke Aquaculture, which owns all the net pens at four locations in Puget Sound, receives the benefits of using the public waterways and placing the ecosystem in peril while taking very little risk upon itself.

Dennis McLerran, a member of the Leadership Council who has worked for various environmental agencies, said Washington state law has long provided a preference for aquaculture over many other shoreline uses. Like it or not, he said, those preference are “baked into state policies” that direct state agencies to support aquaculture, including salmon farms.

“That is where the Leadership Council should have some discussion,” McLerran said. “Are those preferences in state law appropriate?”

The state of Alaska prohibits salmon farms, while California’s complex regulations allow them only under specific conditions related to water supplies, said Kessina Lee of Ecology.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said the Legislature will no doubt want to hear a complete report on the Cypress Island net-pen collapse, and he urged the agency officials to be fully prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“You will be asked, when the Legislature comes back, ‘How big a deal is this?’” Manning said, noting that he has heard from some people that it is a very big deal, while others say it is nothing at all.

Windrope noted that native salmon populations are already struggling, “and this is one more injury to the salmon.” But since the escaped Atlantic salmon don’t appear to be competing for food, the question comes down to whether they are affecting native fish in other ways. That question is not fully answered, she said.

“For DNR, this is a very big concern,” said Dennis Clark, who helps manage aquatic leases for the agency. “We have a contract with a multinational company, and they failed to adhere to it.”

DNR serves as the landlord for the Puget Sound net pen operations, he said. The aquatic leases run out at various times, from 2022 to 2025, and the agency is taking a closer look at the net pen structures to see what should be done from both a scientific and landlord perspective. Commissioner Franz is taking a special interest, he added.

“We are trying very hard to learn from this (incident),” Clark said, “and we understand that we may need to devote more resources.”

Rich Doenges of Ecology said the Atlantic salmon that got away are considered a “pollutant” under Washington state law. While no long-term effects have been seen following previous escapes of Atlantic salmon, there is some risk to native salmon. The key is to quantify that risk and determine if it is low enough to make the operations worthwhile. If necessary, he said, compliance orders can be issued and state water-quality permits can be amended to require additional safety measures.

Seattle attorney Doug Steding, representing Cooke Aquaculture, said he wanted to convey “sorrow and regret” from the company over the potential impacts of the escape.

“We want to make right with respect to this terrible accident,” he said, adding that the company is committed to working with investigators into the cause of the escape and finding ways to make sure that it never happens again.

Steding noted that Cooke recently acquired the Puget Sound facilities and did not own the Cypress Island net pens when the fish were placed in them. The company should have shared more information with the public about plans to upgrade the facilities, he said.

“You have an important task sorting through the difficult science and integrating with the values of the people of Washington,” Steding told the Leadership Council, adding that Cooke hopes to remain a part of the discussion.

Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
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The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.

Lights could be creating problems for salmon, seabirds and more

Bright lights that affect the behavior of birds, fish and other wildlife are emerging as a significant environmental concern.

Endangered Hawaiian Petrel
Photo: B. Zaun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Yesterday, for example, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Hawai’i Department of Transportation for bright lights the agency controls at piers and airports. The groups say three species of seabirds on the Endangered Species List have been circling the lights until the birds drop from exhaustion, and some birds have died.

Meanwhile, in Lake Washington and the nearby Cedar River in King County, there is evidence that threatened chinook salmon are at greater risk from predators because of lights on the two floating bridges as well as industrial facilities in Renton.

In Florida, researchers have discovered that female turtles avoid coming ashore to lay their eggs where bright lights are present, and in Virginia salamanders have delayed their feeding efforts in the glare of lights.

The lawsuit in Hawaii was filed by lawyers for Earthjustice out of concern for three species of seabirds: Newell’s shearwater, a threatened species, and Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels, both endangered species.

The Hawai’I Department of Transportation has failed to protect the birds, as required by the Endangered Species Act, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, Conservation Council and the Center for Biodiversity. Because the lighting is injuring and killing listed species, the state agency must obtain an incidental take permit and initiate actions to minimize harm, the lawsuit says. For details, see the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief (PDF 1.4 mb).

Lights at airports and harbor facilities have been documented as the greatest source of injury and death to the seabirds, which migrate at night and become disoriented by the artificial lights, the complaint asserts. Some birds crash into buildings, while others end up on the ground where they may be struck by vehicles or eaten by predators.

Since the 1990s, the Newell’s shearwaters have declined by 94 percent and the Hawaiian petrels on the island of Kauai have dropped by 78 percent.

“Our ancestors depended on the ‘a‘o (Newell’s shearwater), ‘ua‘u (Hawaiian petrel) and ‘akē‘akē (band-rumped storm-petrel) to help locate schools of fish, to navigate from island to island and to know when the weather is changing,” Kauai fisherman Jeff Chandler was quoted as saying in a news release from Earthjustice.

According to the news release, the Department of Transportation dropped out of talks with state and federal wildlife agencies that are developing a habitat conservation plan to protect the seabirds. After Earthjustice filed a notice of intent to sue, the agency rejoined the talks.

“That’s a good start, but talk alone will do nothing to save these rare and important animals from extinction,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “It’s long past time for the department to take action, not only on Kauai, but everywhere in the state that its operations illegally kill seabirds.”

Lake Washington chinook

As for the lights on and around Lake Washington, I have not heard of any proposed lawsuits to protect the threatened Puget Sound chinook, but concerns continue to simmer.

Lights on the Highway 520 bridge
Photo: Washington Dept. of Transportation

Jason Mulvihill-Kuntz, salmon recovery manager for the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed, told me that the next regional chapter of the chinook recovery plan will call for further study into the effects of lights on juvenile chinook migrating down the Cedar River and through Lake Washington.

“The technical folks have identified light as a potential emerging issue,” Jason said. “We don’t have a good handle on what the impacts are.”

Lights on Lake Washington may be creating a double whammy for young chinook, Jason said. First, the lights attract the fish, which slow down their migration to Puget Sound. Second, the lights keep them visible to predators at night, so the fish may be eaten 24 hours a day.

“Juvenile salmon don’t have a nighttime respite,” Jason said. “At least that’s the hypothesis.”

Nonnative predatory fish include bass, walleye and northern pike. Native predators include cutthroat trout and pike minnow. Predatory birds include the western grebe and great blue heron.

An updated chinook recovery plan for the Lake Washington region is under review and could be finalized this fall. Predation is getting some additional attention this time around, Jason said, and the issue of lights is something that needs more study.

Experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified potential concerns with lighting along Lake Washington in a series of studies going back more than 10 years. It still isn’t clear, however, how much the known problems with predators are exacerbated by bright lights. That’s why more studies are needed.

Following complaints from residents of Laurelhurst near the Highway 520 bridge, the Washington Department of Transportation reduced the amount of illumination coming off that bridge, and further investigation is underway. Check out the King-5 News report below.

Other species

With regard to other species, lights are known to have a variety of effects. Reporter Sharon Guynup outlined the problems for birds, turtles, amphibians, mammals and even insects in a revealing story in National Geographic News, April 17, 2003.

A group of British researchers from the University of Exeter compiled a list of the known effects of light on various species while considering the role of artificial lighting. See “The ecological impacts of nighttime light pollution; a mechanistic appraisal” in Biological Reviews.

You can join the search for beetles that threaten Washington trees

Washington state property owners and people with swimming pools are being urged to become part of a defensive initiative to protect trees from invasive beetles.

August is National Tree Check Month, and at least four state agencies are asking tree owners this month to take a 10-minute walk around their property to look for insects that don’t belong in our region.

Nationwide, more than a third of all insect invasions are first detected by average people, according to Justin Bush, executive coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council. Heading off an invasion before it gets started could save untold millions of dollars worth of trees, as well as the costs of battling a spreading insect invasion.

Citrus longhorned beetle
Photo: USDA Plant Protection Service, Bugwood.org

This is the second year that Washington state agencies are bringing the message home from other states where many longtime tree populations have been decimated by insects, including the citrus longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer.

“While we don’t have these two invasive insects right now, we could get them at any moment,” Justin told me. “We want people to help us look for them.”

This year, state officials also are asking people who own swimming pools and ponds to join in the defensive effort, as some of invasive insects end up in the water and die. A swimming pool owner or maintenance person should take note of any unusual insects found in pool filters or among debris skimmed off the surface of the water, he said. On the East Coast, swimming pool owners are often able to spot invasive beetles even before they show up in traps designed to attract them.

According to experts at Responsive Pest Control, it would be helpful if people would look for invasive insects all year long, but if that is not a feasible task, August is a good time to place a special emphasis on the effort, because this is the time that most wood-boring insects emerge as adults.

Emerald ash borer
Photo: Debbie Miller, U.S. Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Identifying specific species of beetles is often difficult, Justin acknowledged. The best advice is to take pictures of the insect from several angles and send the photos to the Invasive Species Council, InvasiveSpecies@rco.wa.gov, which will find an expert to identify the bug.

People shouldn’t hesitate to send photos, Justin said. “If it comes to us, we can figure it out.”

Another reporting method is to download the “WA Invasives” app to send photos and location data straight from your smart phone. See WISC download page. The app also includes photos and information for identifying invasive species.

When emailing, one should include contact information, including a phone number, along with the location of the insect sighting. (An address or cross-street description would be helpful.) Details about the tree species should be included as well.

If you obtain one of the beetles, you should keep it in case an expert wants to inspect the specimen. Another option is to take the beetle to a local office of WSU Extension, which can forward it to appropriate experts.

The citrus longhorned beetle, a close relative of the disastrous Asian longhorned beetle, is a major concern on the West Coast. The beetle can feed on a variety of hardwood trees, including apple, maple, oak, willow, alder and popular. When they emerge, they leave an exit hole about 5/8-inch in diameter in the tree.

In 2001, the citrus longhorned beetle was found in Tukwila, where it arrived in a shipment of bonsai trees. Three beetles were recovered from the bonsai trees but five others were seen flying away. Nearly 1,000 trees were cut and chipped within one-eighth mile from the location site, and another 1,500 trees farther away were treated with insecticide. The last beetle was seen in the fall of 2002, and a quarantine remained in effect until 2006. See U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

Because of heavy shipping from Asian ports, concerns remain high that damaging beetles will be imported to the West Coast, Justin said. Insects could also arrive from infested areas back East, which is the primary route for European gypsy moths brought into Washington state in moving vans. This state’s gypsy moth eradication program — including nearly 100 local battles since 1979 (PDF 307 kb) — has kept the damaging moths from establishing a permanent foothold in this state.

Besides the citrus longhorned beetle, officials are concerned that the emerald ash borer could devastate ash trees in this state. The exit holes in ash trees are about a quarter-inch in diameter and have a distinctive “D” shape. Ash trees are common in urban areas, and the beetles apparently have been moving westward as campers bring firewood from eastern areas. The beetle was recently discovered in Boulder, Colo.

State agencies involved in the effort to track down the invasive beetles are the Invasive Species Council, Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Washington State University Extension.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers information on these and other invasive insects: