Category Archives: Education

Amusing Monday: A new hydrothermal vent field discovered off West Coast

The location of an unknown hydrothermal vent system was predicted by researchers studying maps of the seafloor along the Gorda Ridge off the West Coast. Following those leads, a group of underwater explorers looked for and found the shimmering cauldron of superheated water.

The discovery, during this year’s Nautilus Expedition, took place about a week ago in an area about 75 miles offshore of the border between California and Oregon.

As operators dimmed the lights from their remotely operated vehicles, the sounds of excited scientists filled the mother ship’s control room, where observers watched a video screen providing glorious views of the emerging flow (first video on this page).

“It’s like an artist’s rendition of another planet,” tweeted volcanologist Shannon Kobs Nawotniak of Idaho State University, where her team figured out where to look for the vents using high-resolution sonar bathymetry. Researchers named it the Apollo Vent Field in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this year.

Check out more photos and videos on the Nautilus website, and learn more about the project in “The Alien Landscapes of the Apollo Vent Field.”

The out-of-this-world reference to another planet was not an accident, as NASA researchers are contemplating deep-sea explorations of other worlds. For example, space scientists would like to send an unmanned craft to Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter, where they would drill down through ice up to five miles thick to reach a volcanically active ocean. On the ocean floor of Europa, they might find hydrothermal vents with the right warmth and minerals to support life — possibly similar to the microorganisms that began life on Earth.

This year’s Nautilus expedition involved a project known as SUBSEA, for Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog. The project, which ended about a week ago, is a partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and various academic research centers.

The Exploration Vessel (EV) Nautilus is a research platform equipped with two ROVs: the Hercules and the Argus. They are owned by Ocean Exploration Trust, founded in 2008 by Robert Ballad to explore the oceans.

Background on the SUBSEA mission is provided in a 26-minute video featuring lead scientists Darlene Lim of NASA’s Ames Research Center and Christopher German of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (second video).

Gulf of California

On an entirely separate expedition in February, scientists aboard the Research Vessel (RV) Falkor from Schmidt Ocean Institute discovered colorful towers of minerals up to 75 feet tall in the Gulf of California. These towers, along with a variety of sea creatures clinging to them, were not there during a previous expedition a decade ago.

“Astonishing is not strong enough of a word,” said Mandy Joye, a marine biologist at the University of Georgia who led the team that discovered the vents.

Check out the story “Deep-Sea Explorers Find Trippy, Rainbow-Colored Wonderland” by reporter Stephanie Pappas and the slideshow “Sea Life Thrives at Otherworldly Hydrothermal Vent System,” both in the online magazine “Live Science.”

Schmidt Ocean Institute, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is part of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Network of Philanthropies. The institute owns the RV Falcone and supports its crew for teams of researchers from various institutions.

Coast of Oregon

The current expedition of the RV Falkor, led by Carolyn Ruppel of the U.S. Geological Survey, is studying methane seeps off the Oregon Coast. The cruise will add to ongoing knowledge about the hundreds of methane seeps that might become a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.

Live video from the ROV SuBastian is available during operational periods. Click at the top of the “Live from RV Falkor” page to connect to the feed when it is available.

As I post this blog, the live feed is accessible (video below).

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.

Amusing Monday: World Reef Day calls attention to coral catastrophe

On the first day of June, ocean advocates around the world celebrated the very first World Reef Day. The event got me to thinking a little more about the role of corals in the most productive ecosystems around the world, as well as the coral reefs located in our own backyards here in the Pacific Northwest.

“Our goal was to stimulate a global conversation about reef conservation and the simple things we can do in our own lives to make huge changes,” said Theresa Van Greunen of Aqua-Aston Hospitality, one of the sponsors of World Reef Day.

The event was launched with a special focus on Hawaii, but the issue of conserving critical coral habitats has worldwide appeal, with 5.5 million people pledging to use reef-friendly sunscreen and reduce their usage of single-use plastics that can harm the marine ecosystem, according to a news release from sponsor Raw Elements and another from sponsor Hawaiian Airlines. While there were elements of fun in this new event, I guess it does not fit my normal criteria for “amusing,” so we’ll have to settle for educational.

Corals are marine invertebrates that live in compact colonies that can grow into extensive reef systems under the right environmental conditions. The individuals in the colonies are soft-bodied organisms called polyps. Reefs begin when a free-floating larva attaches itself to a rock and begins cloning itself over and over into thousands of identical animals.

For genetic diversity, male and female corals release their gametes all at once as an annual event, apparently timed to the lunar cycle and water temperature, as described on a webpage by NOAA’s National Ocean Service and in a video below. The resulting embryo, called a planula, can float for weeks but eventually settles down to start a new colony if conditions are right.

Some coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, take shape over thousands of years. Although coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, they are rich ecosystems, supporting 25 percent of all marine creatures, according to an interesting summary in the National Geographic video “Coral Reefs 101,” below.

Although we think of corals as growing in far-off places, the Pacific Northwest is home to all sorts of colorful corals. In fact, deep-water explorations within the Pacific Coast National Marine Sanctuary off
Washington’s shoreline have found a reef-forming coral, Lophelia pertusa, previously believed to exist only in the Atlantic Ocean, as described in a report by the environmental group Oceana.

To dive deeper into the corals off the Washington Coast, check out the 2007 cruise report the NOAA ship McArthur II: “Observations of Deep Coral and Sponge Assemblages in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Washington” (PDF 3.4 mb). If nothing else, it’s worth a look for the pictures of Washington state coral.

Primnoa pacifica, a soft deep-water coral, was found within Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. // Photo: NOAA

“Even Puget Sound contains hydrocorals scattered throughout its various inlets and islands,” according to the Oceana report. “These corals are living habitats that provide structure on the seafloor for other marine life. Biogenic habitat provides feeding areas, shelter from predators, and nursery for juveniles.

“Trawling in the Pacific Northwest has taken its toll,” the report adds, “both on the fish and their habitat. Targeting flatfish, whiting and rockfish, trawlers have flattened many of the corals, sponges and other living seafloor animals before scientists even knew they were there.”

For the full Oceana report, download “Deep Sea Corals: Out of sight, but no longer out of mind” (PDF 2.7 mb).

Another interesting research project involves the discovery of corals along the seamounts northwest of the Hawaiian Islands, where corals were not supposed to grow. Low carbonate levels had been expected to inhibit coral growth, while pH levels were thought to dissolve coral skeletons. See the news release from Florida State University.

While new discoveries help with our understanding of coral, researchers are desperately concerned about the future of coral reefs, which are dying at an extraordinary rate because of global warming. When local conditions are combined with thermal stress, about 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are at risk of collapse, according to a report from the World Resources Institute.

Peter Harris, a North Kitsap native recognized worldwide for his expertise in marine ecology, told me last year that coral bleaching, caused by warming waters, is one of the top three concerns for the world’s oceans — even above ocean acidification.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” according to Peter, who directs GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress,” he told me. “They will keep dying off.” See Water Ways, June 6, 2018.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow down the warming would surely help, even as other researchers work on developing more resilient strains of coral that might survive the worsening conditions and eventually repopulate the oceans. HBO’s Vice News has produced an informative 14-minute program on this issue. See the video “Scientists are breeding super coral,” above.

Other general information:

By the way, this past Saturday — a week after World Reef Day — World Oceans Day was commemorated. Launched worldwide in 2002, the event recognizes the importance of and the declining state of our oceans.

Amusing Monday: ‘Science Guy’ flips out during climate demo

“I think we’ve all broken Bill Nye — and I, for one, am absolutely on board with his gritty new reboot,” says comedian John Oliver after “the Science Guy” launches into a profanity-laced demonstration of climate change, in which he literally watches the globe go up in flames.

“I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12,” Nye tells Oliver’s HBO audience after firing up his blowtorch. “But you’re adults now, and this is an actual crisis! Got it?”

Nye appeared yesterday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, where moderator Brian Stelter asked him about his blowup. The CNN piece, shown in the first video, goes straight to Bill’s line, “The planet’s on f—— fire! You’re not children anymore!…”

“The writers had this premise,” Nye tells Stelter, “and my performance was heartfelt. But keep in mind, you guys, that I’ve been trying to get people interested in addressing climate change since long about 1993.”

Stelter asks Nye how he hopes to get through to climate-change deniers.

“Climate change deniers, to me, are like astrology people or haunted-house people…,” Nye says. “It takes a couple years for people to change their minds.”

I was amused by the full interview on “Reliable Sources,” which includes Nye’s reaction to the recent sighting of UFOs by Navy pilots.

But the original 20-minute segment about climate change on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is well-crafted, offering Oliver’s typical humorous take on a serious topic. The second video demonstrates how Oliver likes to feed his audience tidbits of real science and politics while sarcastically poking fun at those who seem to ignore the serious problems of our time.

Here’s to hoping that John Oliver, Bill Nye and others will continue their amusing ways to help people learn about climate change.

Amusing Monday: SeaDoc followers go wild with new video series

“Salish Sea Wild” is a new video series by the SeaDoc Society designed to transport the viewer right up close to the living creatures that occupy the underwater and terrestrial realms of the Salish Sea.

The videos portray the beauty of our inland waterways as well as the excitement and occasional amusement of diving down into the ecologically rich waters that many people know only from the surface. The host for the series is wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, science director for SeaDoc.

“Amid the wealth of biodiversity in our backyard, we’ll discover trees that eat fish, fish that mimic plants, plants that grow two feet a day, and animals that bloom like flowers,” Joe says in an introductory video (the first on this page). “We’ll focus on scientists working to preserve and restore the Salish Sea and to save its iconic species like salmon and our beloved orcas.”

The underwater world has already been the source for some remarkable video for the series, but the producers say they will also head to the mountains to visit terrestrial creatures as well as those that thrive in the coastal upwellings of the Pacific Ocean — from bears to giant octopus, from seabirds to ancient rockfish, along with various plants and seaweed that support the intricate food web.

SeaDoc, based on Orcas Island, is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the University of California, Davis, and dedicated to science and education in and around the Salish Sea. Producing the video series along with SeaDoc is Bob Friel, award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker who lives on Orcas Island.

This ambitious video project was launched in January with a 12-minute video that compares steller sea lions to grizzly bears, with the crew of Salish Sea Wild encountering a bunch of frisky stellers in the icy waters off Hornby Island, which is not quite halfway up Vancouver Island’s inner coast in British Columbia.

I wanted to wait until a few more videos were produced before promoting it here, and we’re now at that point. The next video, 14 minutes long, takes viewers in a submarine to the bottom of the Salish Sea. A massive school of sand lance is one of the captivating clips in the video shot near the San Juan Islands. Joe’s excitement is contagious as he eagerly boards the submersible that dives deeper than a scuba diver can go.

In the next video, the SeaDoc research team heads to the coast to describe seabirds — including the endangered and mysterious marbled murrelets. It reminded me of the first time I met Joe Gaydos, who was at the time studying Western grebes off the Kitsap Peninsula. See Kitsap Sun, March 5, 2007.

If you are as eager as I am to see what comes next, you can sign up for notification of each new video on SeaDoc’s YouTube channel. The videos also can be viewed on www.SalishSeaWild.org and on SeaDoc’s Facebook page and Instagram feed.

The last video on this page includes some amusing outtakes from the ongoing adventures of Salish Sea Wild. Could Joe Gaydos be the next Jacques Cousteau? Check out “Zee Undersea World of Jeaux Gaydeaux.”

Finally, just for younger people, SeaDoc recently launched the Junior SeaDoctors program, designed to connect young adventurers with their wild surroundings. Read about killer whales, ocean circulation and stormwater on the home page of Junior SeaDoctors, where one can signup to join the club. The program includes a curriculum for teachers who wish to use the materials in their classroom to meet Next Generation Science Standards.

Amusing Monday: Student artists share views of rare species

A student art contest focused on endangered species produced some impressive paintings and drawings this year for the 14th annual Endangered Species Day, which was celebrated this past Friday.

The contest, called Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest, is sponsored by the Endangered Species Coalition. It gives the young artists and their audience a chance to understand species at risk of extinction. Some choose plants and animal that are well known; others go for the obscure.

Texas blind salamander by ©Sam Hess
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The grand prize this year was awarded to Sam Hess, a first grader from Portland, Ore. He depicted a Texas blind salamander, a rare cave-dwelling species native to just one place, the San Marcos Pool of the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County, Texas. The salamander, which grows to about 5 inches, features blood-red gills for breathing oxygen from the water.

The art contest, for students K-12, is sponsored by the Endangered Species Coalition, including more than 450 conservation, scientific, education, religious, recreation, business and community organizations.

“We owe it to this generation of children to pass down healthy ecosystems brimming with wildlife,” said Leda Huta, the coalition’s executive director, in a news release. “Every year, their artwork demonstrates how deeply they feel for nature and all of its wondrous creatures – large and small.”

West Indian Manatee by ©Grace Ou
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The second-place overall winner was a picture of a West Indian manatee by Grace Ou, an eighth grader in Lexington, Mass. The West Indian manatee, also known as American manatee, lives in shallow coastal areas of the West Indies — better known as the Caribbean. It is also common in South Florida waters during the summers. The Florida manatee is considered a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee.

The 2019 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest received more than 1,100 entries from students around the United States, according to organizers. Besides the overall winners, awards were also given in four grade categories. Here are the first-place winners in those categories:

  • Grades K-2: Bruce Chan a kindergartner from Whippany, N.J.,
  • Grades 3-5: Sky Hana, a fifth grader from Des Plaines, Ill.,
  • Grades 6-8: Evan Zhang, an eighth grader from Sudbury, Mass., and
  • Grades 9-12: Krista Bueno, a 12th grader from Chantilly, Va., tied with Annette Yuan.
Gila chub by ©Sky Hana
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

View six of the winning entries on the contest website, with Annette Yuan’s picture of humpback whales on a Flickr page. I’m not sure how the judges manage to pick these winners, but I believe it is worth taking a look at all 10 semi-finalists in each category by linking from the semi-finalists webpage.

The students were called on to depict a land or ocean-dwelling species that lives in or migrates through the United States and is listed as threatened or endangered or was previously on the Endangered Species List. The subjects must be vertebrates, invertebrates, flowering plants or non-flowering plants.

The contest encourages the artists to tell a story of hope, such as how people were able to rebuild an endangered population.

Spectacled eider by ©Krista Bueno
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

Judges for the contest included Andrew Zuckerman, wildlife photographer, filmmaker, and creative director; Robert Wyland, marine life artist; Jack Hanna, host of “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild;” David Littschwager, freelance photographer and contributor to National Geographic magazine; Susan Middletown, a photographer who has collaborated with Littschwager and whose own work has been published in four books; and Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution.

Said Zuckerman, “Through the visual arts, I try to celebrate our vanishing species, and I am glad to be joined by these inspiring young artists. I hope these artists and their images will encourage action to protect rare and endangered species for future generations.”

Humpback whale by ©Annette Yuan
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The Endangered Species Coalition likes to emphasize the successes of the Endangered Species Act, and a new blog post on Friday features a dozen success stories for species saved from extinction.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has issued a new global assessment that raises the prospect of a million species being pushed to extinction over the next few years as a result of human activities. Topping the list of threats are:

  1. Land and sea use, including development, logging and mining,
  2. Hunting and fishing that over-taxes the ability of populations to remain stable,
  3. Climate change, which is just beginning to have an ecological impact at both a large and local scale,
  4. Pollution, which includes 400 million tons of toxic chemicals and wastes being dumped in oceans and rivers every year, and
  5. Invasive species, which can drive out native species and disrupt carefully balanced food webs.

Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, said only by acting quickly to address the problem at every level can disaster be averted.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” he said in a blog post that spells out the problem. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Other information:

Ghost-net busters are entering a new era of hunting and removal

My mind is unable to grasp, in any meaningful way, how much death and destruction was caused by fishing nets that were lost and abandoned through the years.

Filmed in 2007, this KCTS-9 video describes the problem of ghost nets and a project that would eventually remove nearly 6,000 nets.

Nearly 6,000 of these so-called “ghost nets” have been pulled from the waters of Puget Sound over the past 17 years. Until removed, they keep on catching fish, crabs and many more animals to one degree or another.

We can support responsible fishing, but those of us who care about Puget Sound must never again allow lost nets to be forgotten, as if “out of sight, out of mind” ever worked for anyone.

The latest concern, as I reported last month in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, is that 200 or more ghost nets are still lurking at depths below 100 feet, which is the level considered safe to operate by divers with normal scuba gear. Remotely operated vehicles (unmanned submarines) are being developed to go after nets remaining in deep water, where they are killing crabs and many other deep-water species — including rockfish, some of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Another concern is that some commercial fishermen, for unknown reasons, are still failing to report the nets they are losing during the course of fishing, despite state and tribal requirements to do so. We know this because newly lost nets, with little accumulation of marine growth, are still being found.

The Northwest Straits Foundation operates an outreach program to inform fishers about the importance of reporting lost nets and the legal requirements to do so, as I describe in my story. This is a no-fault program, and if a fisher reports a lost net, it will be removed free of cost. If the net is usable, the owner will likely get it back.

Why a fisher would not report a lost net is hard to imagine, unless the person is fishing illegally. If the person losing a net cares at all about natural resources or the future of fishing, one would think that reporting would be swift — even if that person had to swallow some pride for taking inadvisable actions that lost the net.

If this matter of nonreporting does not turn around, fishers may face additional regulations — such as a requirement to place tags on the bottom of every net to identify the owner. That way, the owner could be identified and charged with a violation when an unreported net is found. Currently, identification is placed at the top of the net on floats, which often get removed when fishers pull up as much net as possible.

Maybe all commercial fishers should be required to look at pictures of dead fish, birds and porpoises entangled in lost nets and sign an agreement to report lost nets.

The numbers only begin to tell the story. In the 5,809 nets removed at last count, more than 485,000 organisms were found. That includes 1,116 birds, 5,716 fish, 81 marine mammals and 478,000 invertebrates, including crabs.

But that’s only the intact animals that were found. For every animal found during net removal, many more probably were killed and decomposed each month that the net kept on fishing — and for some nets that could be up to 30 years.

According to a study led by Kirsten Gilardi of the University of California, Davis, the 5,809 nets could have been killing nearly 12 million animals each year — including 163,000 fish, 29,000 birds and 2,000 marine mammals. Those numbers, based on a series of assumptions, are mind-boggling. But even if the numbers are not entirely accurate, they tell us clearly that every net is important.

I’ve been reporting on this issue of ghost nets since about 2000, when Ray Frederick of the Kitsap Poggie Club first alerted me to the problem and went about convincing state legislators that they ought to do something. See my story in the Kitsap Sun, May 4, 2000, which began:

“In the murky, undersea twilight of Puget Sound, scuba divers occasionally come face to face with the tangled remains of rotting fish.

“Nearly invisible in the dim light, long-lost fishing nets continue to ensnare fish, birds, seals, crabs and other creatures that happen along. Divers call these hidden traps ‘ghost nets.’

“‘It’s a little eerie, seeing fish like that,’ said Steve Fisher, an underwater photographer from Bremerton. ‘You can see that something has been eating on them, and the fish are a pretty good size — bigger than you would normally see.’”

One of the early state-funded projects was the removal of a 300-foot net near Potlatch, led by the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. See Kitsap Sun, June 29, 2002.

Today, most of the ongoing effort in Puget Sound is coordinated by the Northwest Straits Foundation and Natural Resources Consultants, which have gained considerable knowledge about how to find and remove ghost nets at any depth.

Amusing Monday: A comedy connection to climate change info

Climate scientist Josh Willis, who graduated from the Second City Comedy School, does a pretty good impersonation of Elvis Presley, as he tries to help people understand climate change.

“It’s a tough thing to communicate, and I think that we need to use all the tools that we can in order to really reach people and help them understand what’s happening to the planet,” Willis said in an interview on KNBC’s “Life Connected” show in Los Angeles, which aired last week.

The first video on this page features a rock ‘n’ roll song that answers the question, “What’s climate … What?”

“You take a bunch of weather and you average it together and you’re doing the Climate Rock!”

Professionally, Willis, who works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is part of a team that travels to Greenland to observe how changing temperatures are melting away the glaciers and raising sea levels. They call the project OMG, for Oceans Melting Greenland.

Willis, who holds a doctorate in oceanography from the University of California, San Diego, makes his living as a scientist, but he has long enjoyed connecting with people in a humorous way.

“Being a scientist, we’re trying to discover something about the world, and I think being a comedian, you’re trying to discover something about people that makes them laugh,” he said in the KNBC piece by Belen De Leon and Tommy Bravo.

Willis spends a portion of his free time performing in comedy clubs. He developed the Elvis character and produced a video on YouTube.

“Being a kind of a middle-age, doughy, white guy with big hair and sideburns, Elvis seemed like the perfect guy,” Willis said.

He has found that people might ask Elvis basic questions about climate change that they might not ask a stuffy scientist, and those personal interactions have improved his ability to communicate science in more creative ways, according to an article last week by Zoe Sayler of Grist magazine.

“Climate scientists have become a political weapon, right? We’re seen as this kind of imaginary force that’s either being manipulated or telling you the truth, depending on your political leanings,” Willis was quoted as saying. “We need to be humanized a little bit, because we’ve lost that.”

In the Grist article, Sayler gets Willis to tell the story about a research paper he co-wrote that suggested a brief shift toward global cooling — a finding that, if true, would have reverberated through the world of climate science. Just before presenting the paper at a climate conference, Willis found an error in the data.

The mistake was like a comedy routine with no laughter, and Willis decided the best thing to do was rewrite the paper, provide the correct findings and explain what went wrong.

“We all fail, and we all make mistakes,” Willis said in the Grist article. “When you can own up to them, and try to move on, then people usually forgive you. I think in comedy, the same thing is true. When you bomb, the best thing you can do is own up to it and make fun of yourself.”

The other two videos are bits by Willis, featuring one character called Dick Dangerfield and another called Guy Scientist.

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.

Amusing Monday: Young artists describe dangers of trash in the ocean

Student artists are helping people understand how ocean creatures are affected by human trash. At least that’s the goal of the annual Marine Debris Art Contest, now in its sixth year. The contest is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program.

Aaron K, Grade 5, Michigan

Hundreds of entries from all over the country were submitted by students, from kindergarteners to eighth graders. I’ve selected a few of my favorites for this page, but you can see all 13 winning entries on the contest website. The 13 winners will have their drawings featured in an upcoming calendar, with one picture on the cover and one for each month. After posting, the calendar can be downloaded from NOAA’s website. To enlarge the pictures on this page, click directly on the image.

Cindy P, Grade 7, Mississippi

The express goal of the art contest is for students to learn about the worldwide problem of marine debris and to use their power of artistic expression to raise awareness. Winners were chosen for their creativity, artistic presentation, relevance to theme, and how thoroughly the students explained how marine debris affects the ocean and what people can do to help.

“The resulting calendar, featuring the winning artwork, will help to remind us every day how important it is for us to be responsible stewards of the ocean,” states the homepage for the contest.

Anastasia K, Grade 4, Pennsylvania

I’ve been promoting the contest and showing off the student artwork in this blog since the beginning, when the top winner was Araminta “Minty” Little, a seventh grader at Fairview Junior High School in Central Kitsap. See Minty’s picture of an octopus clutching lost junk in Water Ways, March 18, 2013.

I do wish that contest organizers would take the time to obtain whatever permissions are necessary so that the student artists can be recognized with their full names, schools and hometowns. As it is, we get to see only their first names and last initials — unless the students or their teachers contact the local newspaper for publicity, which is how I found out about Minty six years ago.

Luke G, Grade 3, Ohio

To download calendars from previous years, use the pull-down menu on the webpage of NOAA’s Marine Debris Art Contest.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s mission is to investigate and prevent the adverse impacts of marine debris. The program includes regional marine debris efforts, research and outreach to local communities. The main webpage includes links to public information, scientific reports and a blog about marine debris.

Jennie C, Grade 8, Massachusetts