Category Archives: Research

Getting lost in the tangle of connections called the Puget Sound food web

I’m increasingly amazed at the interwoven nature of the Puget Sound food web. Whenever I become focused on a specific species — Chinook salmon, for example — one of the first questions I ask is: What is this species eating?

I soon learn that the answer depends on the size of the individual doing the eating. Prey for a baby salmon is much different from prey for an adult.

If you really want to learn about why a species is doing well or poorly, you need to look beyond prey availability for your species of interest and find out what the prey are eating as well. Healthy prey must be abundant for any species to do well, so the prey of the prey must also do well.

When we combine features of this prey base with varying conditions among predators and competitors, we begin to build a model of the food web. Nearly every diagram of a food web model I’ve seen reminds me of tangled spaghetti with each strand connected to tiny meatballs representing groups of species. Sounds crazy, but it’s a food web model.

A computer-based model being developed for Puget Sound can simulate animals eating each other at unimaginable speeds. For each predator-prey interaction, there is a transfer of energy to a higher level in the food web. The model expresses the transfer of energy as units of nitrogen, since nitrogen is essential to all common forms of life. Thus nitrogen becomes the “currency” to calculate transfers in the food web, explains modeler Chris Harvey of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. I briefly mentioned this modeling effort in the final installment of a four-part series about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project.

As I described in a recent blog post (Water Ways, July 6), the Marine Survival Project is all about figuring out why wild Chinook salmon and steelhead seem to be headed for extinction in the waters of Puget Sound. The project involves more than 200 scientists in the U.S. and Canada, all searching for answers.

As of Monday, all four parts of the series are now published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

For those who would like to dive deeper into the complexities of the Puget Sound food web, I recommend a video (first on this page) featuring Chris Harvey and his colleague Correigh Greene, another research scientist at NWFSC. To better follow the explanations on the videos, you can download Correigh’s slide show (PDF 2 mb) as well as Chris’ slide show 3.8 mb) from the Washington Department of Ecology’s website regarding the Puget Sound Nutrient Forum, for which there are a variety of other videos.

A little less technical but quite informative is a presentation by Tessa Francis, an ecologist at Puget Sound Institute who described the food web by putting forage fish in the middle, emphasizing the importance of herring to many Puget Sound species (second video). Tessa prepared her talk for a general audience, and it was sponsored by KCTS-9 television and Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.

Related information about the fate of salmon and steelhead can be found on the website of the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project.

Is there any hope for coming together on climate change?

Not long ago, I was having dinner at a restaurant with some friends. We were talking about environmental concerns when someone mentioned climate change.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” said the man seated to my right. “We are actually going into the next ice age, and the weather is getting colder.”

Stunned, all I could say was, “I don’t even know how to respond to that.” I was not in the mood to give a scientific lecture, nor did it seem like the time to engage in an angry debate — so I changed the subject.

Ever since, I’ve been wondering what I should have said. I’m sure I could have discussed whether humans are to blame for the fact that temperatures are becoming more extreme. For example, the average annual temperature has exceeded the 138-year average every year since 1976. (See NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.) The evidence of human influence is pretty compelling, but even if you find fault with the data or want to blame natural causes, the warming trend is clear.

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The lives of salmon are complex, leading to threats but also hope

Salmon have a tough life. Not only must they escape predators and find enough food to eat — as do all wild animals — but they must also make the physiologically taxing transition from freshwater to saltwater and then back again to start a new generation.

In a four-part series being published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I explain some of the latest research findings about how chinook, coho and steelhead are struggling to survive in the waters of Puget Sound.

Chinook salmon // Photo: Zureks, Wikimedia commons

The first part is called “Opening the black box: What’s killing Puget Sound’s salmon and steelhead?” It describes the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, a major research effort involving more than 200 scientists in the U.S. and Canada. The effort is coordinated by Long Live the Kings in the U.S. and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada.

The second part, titled “Size means survival for salmon,” takes a look at salmon and steelhead’s place in the food web from the “bottom up,” as they say. Specifically, what are the fish eating and what is limiting their access to a healthy food supply?

Still to come are discussions about predation (“top down”) in Part 3, and other factors that affect survival, such as disease and chemical exposure, in Part 4.

Our goal for this project has been to describe the important research findings in careful detail without getting lost in complex scientific analysis. I also describe, at the end of Part 1, some new findings regarding potential competition among salmon for food in the Pacific Ocean.

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Dry weather started early this year amid cloudy conditions

UPDATE:
July 5. Greg Johnson, who lives in Hansville and manages the Skunk Bay Weather station there, said the unusually high rainfall in June for Hansville, compared to the rest of the peninsula, was the result of the Puget Sound convergence zone settling over the area on several occasions. Weather conditions brought localized squalls during the month, he said, adding, “This is very unusual for us.”

The reading at Greg’s weather station, 1.98 inches for the month of June, was somewhat lower than the 2.26 inches recorded at Kitsap PUD’s weather station in Hansville.
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Cool, often cloudy conditions have helped obscure the fact that very little rain has fallen on the Kitsap Peninsula over the past two months.

Precipitation in Holly (click to enlarge)

Now that we are in the fourth quarter of the water year, we can see that rainfall levels for this year will be close to average for most areas on the peninsula. What might not be recognized, however, is that April was well above average, while May and June were well below average.

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Two deaths, no births for Southern Resident orcas over the past year

Two deaths — no births. The annual census of Puget Sound’s resident orcas shows a continuing decline in their population, as the normally social killer whales focus their attention on finding enough food to survive.

Crewser, or L-92, a 23-year-old male orca who died in recent months. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The latest whale to go missing and presumed dead is 23-year-old Crewser, or L-92, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. Crewser was last seen alive by CWR staff in November. That was before coastal observers reported that he appeared to be missing from L pod earlier this year. On June 11, Ken and his fellow researchers got a good look at both J and L pods in the San Juan Islands and concluded that L-92 was indeed gone. (Check out the CWR report on L-92.)

Crewser was one of the so-called Dyes Inlet whales, a group of 19 orcas that spent a month in the waters between Bremerton and Silverdale in 1997. (I described that event for the Kitsap Sun in 2007.) Crewser was only 2 years old when he was with his mom, Rascal or L-60, during the Dyes Inlet visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Green crabs on Dungeness Spit
  • New findings on Whidbey Island
  • Where the crabs are NOT coming from
  • New efforts with Canada
  • First scientific paper on the green crab program
  • New assessment tool on the horizon
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Orange plankton bloom is not a good sign for ecological health

If you notice an orange tint to the waters of Central Puget Sound, it’s not your imagination. It is a dense plankton bloom dominated by the dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans.

Noctiluca scintillans bloom comes ashore at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines on Monday of this week.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Noctiluca is often seen in some numbers at this time of year, but it may be a bit more intense this time around, according to Christopher Krembs, an oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology. Christopher tells me that the orange color may stick around awhile.

The orange-colored species does not produce any toxins found to be harmful to humans, but it is not exactly a friendly organism either. It often shows up in marine waters that are out of balance with nutrients or impaired in some other way. It can gobble up other plankton that feed tiny fish and other creatures, but it does not seem to provide a food supply that interests very many species — probably because of its ammonia content. Consequently, Noctiluca is often referred to as a “dead end” in the food web.

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World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

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

Peter Harris

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

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

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

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

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