Category Archives: Research

Amusing Monday: Colorful sea slugs reveal evolutionary strategies

In conjunction with National Sea Slug Day last Monday, the California Academy of Sciences released colorful photographs of 17 newly identified nudibranch species.

Striking colors and unusual color patterns were given a special focus in a genetic study that is helping to group the nudibranch species and understand how they evolved. Hannah Epstein, affiliated with the California Academy, was the lead author on the research paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Researchers were surprised to learn that this nudibranch was the same species, Hypselodoris iba, as the one directly below on this page.
Photo: Terry Gosliner, © California Academy of Sciences

“When we find an anomaly in color pattern, we know there’s a reason for it,” said Epstein, now a researcher at James Cook University in Australia, quoted in a news release.

“It reveals a point in evolution where a selective pressure — like predation — favored a pattern for camouflage or mimicking another species that may be poisonous to would-be predators,” she noted.

Terry Gosliner, an invertebrate zoologist credited with discovering more than a third of all known sea slug species, added this:

This nudibranch and the one above are the same species, Hypselodoris iba.
Photo: Terry Gosliner © California Academy of Sciences

“Nudibranchs have always been a marine marvel with their dazzling color diversity. We’re only beginning to understand the evolution of color. This is the first time we’ve had a family tree to test longstanding hypotheses for how patterns evolve.”

National Sea Slug Day was recently established by Christopher Mah, an invertebrate zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution. To honor Gosliner, Mah chose Oct. 29, Gosliner’s birthday, for this special day of recognition for sea slugs. Check out Mah’s blog for details.

Nudibranch species Hypselodoris brycei
Photo: © Nerida Wilson

“Sea slugs have an arsenal of strategies for surviving, from mimicry to camouflage to cryptic patterns,” said Gosliner, who has described more than 1,000 nudibranch species. “We’re always thrilled to discover new sea slug diversity. Because nudibranchs have such specialized and varied diets, an area with many different species indicates a variety of prey — which means that coral reef ecosystem is likely thriving.”

Nudibranch species Hypselodoris katherinae
Photo: Terry Gosliner © California Academy of Sciences

Changes in nudibranch populations can be an early sign of changing conditions, such as seen in 2015 during a population explosion of Hopkins’ rose nudibranchs along the California Coast. The sudden shift came during a period of ocean warming. See news release, California Academy of Sciences, and the web page for iNaturalist, where volunteer observers were among the first to report the phenomenon.

Nudibranch species Hypselodoris peri
Photo: Terry Gosliner © California Academy of Sciences

The complexity of color variations is exemplified by members of the genus Hypselodoris, which inhabit coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific tropics. Coral reefs are home to some of the most astounding colors and patterns on Earth.

During the research, scientists encountered one sea slug that was lavender with a white stripe and another that was cream-colored with a lavender stripe and orange spots. They were assumed to be separate species until a diver took a photograph of the two mating. Genetic analysis revealed that they were the same species, Hypselodoris iba.

Nudibranch species Hypselodoris violacea
Photo: Terry Gosliner © California Academy of Sciences

Meanwhile, that lavender sea slug appeared to be amazingly similar to another purple species found in the region, Hypselodoris bullocki, yet the two were quite distinct.

“When two different species like H. iba and H. bullocki present in the same color, the simplest explanation is that they share a common ancestor,” Rebecca Johnson, another member of the research team, said in a news release. “These two species, however, are pretty far apart on the family tree. The more likely explanation for their similar appearance is that they reside in the same geographic region where being purple is advantageous for avoiding predators, either as camouflage or warning of distastefulness.”

Through genetic analysis, the researchers were able to show that distant relatives can evolve independently but appear quite similar to each other as each tries to cope with similar environmental conditions. This tendency is known as convergent evolution.

Some nudibranchs use their bright colors to warn away predators by advertising that they contain toxins that make them unpalatable. Other species may mimic that coloration, successfully detering predators, even though they do not contain a toxin.

For additional background on nudibranchs, including photos from the Puget Sound region, check out Water Ways, Oct. 12, 2015.

Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

Roller coasters and kidney stones; voodoo dolls and abusive bosses; and wine with fruit flies were all part of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.

The annual ceremony recognizes seemingly off-the-wall research, most of which is published in actual scientific journals. Judges are looking for studies that first make them laugh and then make them think, according to Marc Abrahams, who founded the Ig Nobel awards in 1991.

Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, serves as editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

As usual, the ceremony shows that researchers really do have a sense of humor. This year’s theme was “the heart,” as reflected in a heart trophy and an opera performed during the ceremony. The full show, presented in the video on this page, contains skits, stunts and demonstrations.

I’m always amused by the amount of work that goes into these research projects, many of which have practical, if somewhat obscure, applications to daily life. In fact, one physicist, Russian-born Andre Geim, received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 when he showed how to levitate a small frog with magnets, using the magnetic properties of water. He went on to share an actual Nobel Prize 10 years later for discoveries related to graphene, now considered an advanced building material.

If any of these research projects stir your curiosity, you can track down the papers through the Ig Nobel Prize website. I will spare you the formal titles of these papers, but they’re on the website with links to the publication where they appeared. In the list below, the times next to the prizes indicate where on the video you can view each announcement of the prize, followed by an acceptance speech and sometimes demonstrations related to the projects.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (14:14) for discovering that roller coaster rides hasten the passage of kidney stones. (One of the authors is from Poulsbo.)

In receiving the prize, Dr. David Wartinger of Michigan State University said the real credit should go to one of his patients, who passed a kidney stone two minutes after getting off the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a roller coaster ride at Disney World.

“He was so convinced that the ride had caused it that he got back in line and rode it a second time,” Wartinger said during the awards ceremony. “Two minutes after his second ride, he gave birth to kidney stone number 2.”

The follow-up study involved using a device that simulates the human urinary tract. When the device was placed at the front of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, four of 24 kidney stones were dislodged. When the device was placed at the back of the ride, 23 of 26 kidney stones were dislodged.

Wartinger shared the prize with Dr. Marc Mitchell of The Doctors Clinic in Poulsbo.

Ig Nobel Prize in Anthropology (17:07) for finding that, in a zoo, chimpanzees imitate humans about as often — and about as well — as humans imitate chimpanzees.

At the ceremony, Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc reported that two species of apes — humans and chimps — will often “ape” each other in a zoo. The situation is prolonged when either one gets a reaction, demonstrating that mimicking can be a social, as well as a learning, behavior. A film clip shows the process taking place.

Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (24:28) for proving that wine experts can reliably identify by smell the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine.

It is well known that female fruit flies produce pheromones to attract a mate. The research shows that humans are ultra-sensitive to the pheromone and our senses can detect exceeding small amounts of the biological chemical.

“If a female fly is attracted to your glass of wine and drops in, that is very sad for the fly because the fly will drown,” said the author who accepted the prize. “But it is also sad for you, because the pheromone will spoil your wine.”

The ceremony included a demonstration of the phenomenon, with different reactions from four participants.

Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry (28:01) for measuring the degree to which human saliva is a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces.

“I know that it seems quite improbable,” said researcher Paula M. S. Romão, “but human saliva is an effective cleaning agent for surfaces like paintings, sculptures or gilded wood. But don’t try to use it on your kitchen counters.”

An on-stage demonstration is included.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medical Education (45:20) for a paper titled “Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned From Self-Colonoscopy.”

One of the authors, Akira Horiuchi, came on stage with his endoscope and proceeded to demonstrate the self-procedure with his clothes on. “OK,” he said, “I think this trial may be funny, but I learned many things.” Unfortunately, he ran out of time before he could tell the audience exactly what he learned.

Ig Nobel Prize in Literature (53:07) for learning that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual.

Surveys and studies revealed that people not only fail to read long instruction manuals but they never learn how to use some of the functions of the devices they own. Also, “extraneous features” tend to have a negative effect on people’s experience with such products.

“Reading manuals and accessing online help is sometimes such a bad experience that people would avoid doing it even when they knew they were using the product wrongly and reading a manual would probably help,” said researcher Thea Blackler.

(The audience was then shown a photo of a chair assembled with two legs aiming upward.) The fact that people don’t need excessive features seems obvious to most people, Blackler said, but manufacturers aren’t getting the message.

Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition (55:28) for finding that the caloric intake from a human-cannibalism diet is significantly lower than the caloric intake from most other traditional meat diets.

“I have to find my speech,” said researcher James Cole, addressing the audience. “Why don’t you chew on something while I find us some food for thought. I really like research that I get sink my teeth into.”

Cole said the role of his research is to understand the complexities of human ancestors, including Neanderthals. Motivations for cannibalism can be complex, he said, ranging from survival to warfare and other considerations.

“It turns out that calorically we’re not that nutritious compared to a horse or a bison or a mammoth, which we know were successfully hunted in the past. We know that Neanderthals … produced art; they have symbolism, jewelry, language, and complex societies … Perhaps we should consider that our ancestors had a greater complex attitude to cannibalism than in the way we do. If we can gain greater understanding into them, we can gain better understanding into ourselves — and isn’t that what science is about and why we’re all here?”

Ig Nobel Peace Prize (1:03:28) for measuring the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile.

Research shows that drivers who frequently express aggression tend to have higher rates of traffic accidents, according to the study. Among these drivers, aggressive behaviors occur during normal traffic conditions. In several countries studied so far, aggressive behaviors can be associated with a lack of driver education. The current study of 1,100 Spanish drivers found that aggressive behaviors, such as shouting and insulting, were not as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. But some behaviors, such as risky maneuvers of the vehicle, could be considered serious enough for a legal ban.

“Let us also remember that people use cars to make love as well,” quipped researcher Francisco Alonso, “which is clearly better than using them to get us killed.”

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (1:13:15) for using postage stamps to test whether the male sexual organ is functioning properly—as described in the study “Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring With Stamps.”

Sharing the microphone, author physicians John M. Barry, Bruce Blank, Michel Boileau tried to explain their research in simple terms. “We sought to answer Bugs Bunny’s recurrent question: ‘What’s up, Doc?’”

Instead of using expensive equipment to measure erectile function, the three doctors developed an “inexpensive stamp test.” The audience erupted with laughter as suggestive postage stamps were displayed in a slide show.

Ig Nobel Prize in Economics (1:18:37) for investigating whether it is effective for employees to use Voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses.

“In our work, we wanted to understand why people keep retaliating against their abusive bosses, and we presented them with a voodoo doll to see whether stabbing a voodoo doll made them feel that they’ve retaliated,” said lead researcher Lindie Hanyu Liang.

By focusing their aggressions on a voodoo doll, employees can avoid the destructive consequences of actual retaliation against their bosses. “People actually feel better, that their sense of justice has been restored,” Liang concluded.

Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I won’t repeat all that I learned here, since the story lays out the facts as told to me by top experts in the field. But one of the key points is that harbor porpoises have flown largely under the radar, as their population has grown by up to 10 percent per year. One major reason seems to be that harbor porpoises don’t appear to eat many salmon — although more work needs to be done to understand their actual diets.

Even if harbor porpoises don’t eat salmon, however, they must be taking a major chunk out of the food web by eating fish that might be preferred by harbor seals and even consumed by Chinook salmon themselves.

More than a few people have proposed reducing the harbor seal population in the Salish Sea by one means or another. Among them are members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to save the orcas from extinction. But task force members appear to have ignored the impact of harbor porpoises.

Draft recommendations (PDF 342 kb) from the task force call for determining how much effect seals and sea lions are having on the population of Chinook salmon available to the killer whales. The task force is likely to call for a scientific panel to be convened for evaluating predation and considering possible management actions, such as eliminating haul-out areas used by seals or directly removing animals that eat too many salmon.

Experts say the number of seals appears to be declining in our inland waterways, likely the result of various factors — including the increasing presence of marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales. The transients are known to eat seals, sea lions, porpoises and other marine mammals.

Since forage fish consumed by salmon are also taken by harbor seals and harbor porpoises, understanding the entire food web seems like a critical step in determining where human intervention would be most successful — whether that means decreasing the number of harbor seals, increasing the number of forage fish, or even boosting the right kind of plankton that feed the forage fish.

Scott Pearson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has proposed a project that would map the locations where major predators — such as harbor seals and harbor porpoises — tend to hang out. That’s likely to be locations where large numbers of schooling fish congregate, he told me. Tidal currents and channel bathymetry may concentrate food and create hot spots of predation, where people could potentially influence which species gets eaten by which predators. Given existing conditions, saving salmon and their prey at the expense of seals and porpoises could be the preferred choice.

One interesting aspect about the recent rise in the number of harbor porpoises is an associated decrease in the number of Dall’s porpoises — the reverse of what happened from World War II up into the 1990s, when Dall’s porpoises seemed to increase as harbor porpoises declined.

Dall’s porpoises tend to prefer open-water habitats, including the ocean, whereas harbor porpoises are likely to be found closer to shore, as their name implies. Dall’s and harbor porpoises tend to avoid each other, according to observers, and some speculate that female Dall’s porpoises don’t like being around male harbor porpoises, which are known for their sexual aggression among females of their own kind.

Hybrid Dall’s/harbor porpoises — the result of male harbor porpoises impregnating female Dall’s porpoises — have been observed in the Puget Sound region. Check out “Harbor Porpoise in the Salish Sea” (PDF 4.4 mb) by Jacqlynn Zier and Joe Gaydos. See also “Disappearance and Return of Harbor Porpoise to Puget Sound” by Joe Evenson and associates.

As harbor porpoises increased (blue lines), Dall’s porpoises decreased (red lines) in the inland waters of Washington state.
Graphic: “Disappearance and return of harbor porpoise…,” Evenson, et al.

Media minds need new ways to inform people about climate change

The headline on Margaret Sullivan’s column captures the urgency of the moment: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.”

Margaret writes about media issues for the Washington Post. In her column, she worries that the public is missing the story of the century, even as both print and television news outlets dutifully mention the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

How much coverage the average person is able to see and understand is another issue. When the IPCC report came out, the network TV stations dedicated a few minutes to the report but not as much time as they spent covering Kanye West’s visit to the White House, according to Brian Stelter of CNN.

The IPCC’s 33-page “summary for policymakers” (PDF 1.3 mb) is dry reading. It lays out the facts but does not use alarming language to stir people to action. While reading it, I could envision how it might put many people to sleep. Still, I urge everyone to struggle through the document and understand the dire consequences that will come from the failure to act.

The significant difference between a 1.5-degree and a 2.0-degree rise in temperature is spelled out in some detail in the report and summary, helping us realize that we should try to delay the consequences for as long as long as we can — even if we can never return to historical conditions.

If a 33-page summary of a large report seems too much, try skimming through the 23-page “frequently asked questions” (PDF 2.1 mb), or just read the three-page press release (PDF 193 kb).

This week, Kitsap County’s Sustainable Cinema series will present the film “Before the Flood,” a National Geographic production in which actor Leonard DiCaprio travels around the world to witness various effects of climate change. The film includes interviews with world leaders and other experts about the science, political challenges and technological solutions to the problem. The film will be shown Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema, 822 Bay St. in Port Orchard. Admission is free. I’ve posted the trailer in the video player on this page.

Oh, and if you haven’t heard, Washington voters will have a chance to address climate change by enacting a fee on carbon emissions during the upcoming election Nov. 6. The nonprofit organization Ballotpedia lays out the arguments both for and against the ballot measure along with other information on a special website for Initiative 1631.

When talking about climate change in the news, this topic rarely generates pithy soundbites for television or radio, although some people have tried to up the game with alarming rhetoric to draw attention to the latest IPCC report.

“It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who was quoted by reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis of the Washington Post.

Solheim said finding ways to stop emissions of CO2 entirely by 2050 or developing technology to remove an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases is so important that “net zero must be the new global mantra.”

Climate change is not a subject that generates happy news. It is not a subject that most politicians wish to address in any form, but it is one subject that separates those who care about the future of the planet from those who care only about short-term economic benefits or political gains.

President Donald Trump clearly doesn’t want to think about climate change. Asked by Lesley Stahl on the program “60 Minutes” why he doesn’t consider climate change an important issue, Trump said he expects that the climate will change back by itself. As for warnings from a vast majority of scientists, Trump says simply “they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.”

I have heard others say similar things, suggesting that scientists have an ax to grind when it comes to climate and thus they should not be believed. Such critics apparently have little understanding of the scientific method, the competition for new discoveries or the struggle to reach the truth through facts. Such critics probably don’t have a personal relationship with any scientists — or maybe they just have their own political reasons for denouncing the serious findings and nuanced debate among climate scientists.

In her column, Margaret Sullivan makes the case that scientists have tried to get the information to policymakers and the public. Perhaps now it is the media’s turn to try and connect the science with average Americans.

“There is a lot happening in the nation and the world, a constant rush of news,” she writes. “Much of it deserves our attention as journalists and news consumers. But we need to figure out how to make the main thing matter.

“In short, when it comes to climate change, we — the media, the public, the world — need radical transformation, and we need it now. Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.

“We may be doomed even if that happens,” she concludes. “But we’re surely doomed if it doesn’t.”

Amusing Monday: To survive, penguins have adopted odd behaviors

One of the strangest animals on Earth is the emperor penguin, a bird that exhibits some remarkable behaviors to help it survive under the harshest conditions.

One might wish that the penguins would fly away to a warmer area when the frigid cold of winter strikes the Antarctic each year, but this bird doesn’t fly at all. Instead, groups of penguins huddle together on open ice during the long winters. They take turns moving into the middle of the group to escape the worst of the chill winds and to warm up just a little.

Females lay a single egg and quickly abandon it, leaving the males to care for the egg while the females go hunting. For up to two months, the males will balance the egg on their feet, keeping the egg warm in a feathery “brood pouch.” During this time, the males will eat nothing while the females travel many miles to the sea to gorge themselves on fish, squid and krill. When the females return, they are ready to feed their newborn chicks some of this partially digested food, while the males are free to go and find food for themselves.

While these unusual birds can’t fly, their skills under water are quite amazing — and amusing. Their unique physiology allows them to dive much deeper than any other water bird, stay under water for more than 20 minutes, and eventually zoom back to the surface at an incredible rate, as shown in the first video on this page.

BirdNote, a regular program on many public radio stations, recently focused on penguins and the research of Jessica Meir, who wanted to know how penguins were able to swim so deep. Here’s the audio:

      1. 181010-Deep-diving-Emperor-Penguins

In an article in U.S. News and World Report, Jessica wrote, “One study revealed that diving emperor penguins have heart rates significantly lower than that of their heart rates at rest, During one emperor penguin’s impressive 18-minute dive, its heart rate decreased to as low as three beats per minute, with a rate of six beats per minute lasting for over five minutes during the dive. As heart rate is a very good indicator of how much oxygen is utilized, decreased heart rates during dives correspond to conservation of oxygen, enabling the animals to dive for a longer time.”

By the way, Jessica built upon her interest in science and expertise in physiology to become an astronaut in NASA’s space program. She tells her story in the video posted at the bottom of this page.

For other interesting tidbits about the life of emperor penguins, check out the website “Just Fun Facts.”

In a previous discussion about penguins, I talked about the large number of cartoon artists who decided that penguins should be friends with polar bears. This became an interesting and off-the-wall partnership, considering that polar bears and penguins never get together in the wild. These cartoonists have simply ignored the fact that polar bears live in the Arctic on the top side of the world, while penguins live in the Antarctic on the bottom. See Water Ways, Aug. 1, 2011. (Some of the attached videos have been removed from YouTube since that original post.)

On another occasion, I wrote about an orphan penguin found alone on a beach in New Zealand, more than 2,500 miles north of its home in Antarctica. I recounted the story of this penguin, dubbed Happy Feet, while following its rehabilitation and return to the wild via the Internet. See Water Ways, June 26, 2011.

The second video is a compilation of humorous situations involving penguins. Again, the video below shows Jessica Meir explaining at the USA Science and Engineering Festival how she made her life transition from science kid to professional biologist to future space explorer.

Hood Canal avoids a major fish kill following unwelcome conditions

Southern Hood Canal avoided a major fish kill this year, but for a few days in September it looked like conditions were set for low-oxygen waters to rise to the surface, leaving fish in a critical state with no place to go, experts say.

Data from the Hoodsport buoy show the rise of low-oxygen waters to the surface over time (purple color in top two graphs). // Graphic: NANOOS

Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, has been keeping a close watch on a monitoring buoy at Hoodsport. Dissolved oxygen in deep waters reached a very low concentration near the end of September, raising concerns that if these waters were to rise to the surface they could suddenly lead to a deadly low-oxygen condition. This typically happens when south winds blow the surface waters to the north.

“I started asking around the community to see if anyone had seen evidence of low DO (fish at surface; dead fish; deep fish being observed or found in fishing nets at surface; diver observations) and luckily I had no reports,” Seth wrote to me in an email.

Continue reading

Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

Continue reading

Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Continue reading

Less boater pollution allows more shellfish harvesting near marinas

State health officials have reduced shellfish-closure areas around 20 marinas in Puget Sound, allowing more commercial shellfish harvesting while inching toward a goal of upgrading 10,800 acres of shellfish beds by 2020.

In all, 661 acres of shellfish beds were removed from a long-standing “prohibited” classification that has been applied around marinas, based on assumptions about the dumping of sewage from boats confined to small areas.

Poulsbo Marina // Photo: Nick Hoke via Wikimedia

“We have seen pretty significant changes in boat-waste management,” said Scott Berbells, shellfish growing area manager for the Washington Department of Health, explaining how the upgrades came about.

New calculations of discharges from boats in marinas and the resulting risks of eating nearby shellfish have allowed health authorities to reduce, but not eliminate, the closure zones around the marinas.

Continue reading

Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

Continue reading