Category Archives: Research

Hood Canal blooms again, as biologists assess role of armored plankton

In what is becoming an annual event, portions of Hood Canal have changed colors in recent days, the result of a large bloom of armored plankton called coccolithophores.

Coccolithophore from Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay viewed with scanning electron microscope.
Image: Brian Bill, Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Teri King, a plankton expert with Washington Sea Grant, has been among the first to take notice of the turquoise blooms each year they occur.

“Guess who is back?” Teri wrote in the blog Bivalves for Clean Water. “She showed up June 24 in Dabob Bay and has been shining her Caribbean blueness throughout the bay and spreading south toward Quilcene Bay.”

Yesterday, I noticed a turquoise tinge in Southern Hood Canal from Union up to Belfair, although the color was not as intense as I’ve seen in past years.

The color is the result of light reflecting off elaborate platelets of calcium carbonate, called coccoliths, which form around the single-celled coccolithophores. The species in Hood Canal is typically Emiliania huxleyi.

Seth Book of the Skokomish Tribe lowers an instrument to measure light levels during a coccolithophore bloom this week in Dabob Bay.
Photo: Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

In the past, coccolithophore blooms seem to appear when the waters of Hood Canal are calm and sunny. The organisms are said to out-compete other types of plankton when nitrogen diminishes in surface waters. Nitrogen, a key nutrient for phytoplankton, can be used up in Hood Canal during periods of calm, dry weather. It will be interesting to see how the plankton population changes after recent rains may have infused a bit more nitrogen.

Meanwhile, biologists with the Skokomish Tribe have begun to investigate how the coccolithophore blooms could be affecting shellfish in Hood Canal. In recent years, shellfish growers have reported higher-then-usual oyster mortalities around the time of these blooms.

In 2017, Blair Paul, the tribe’s lead shellfish biologist, conducted a dive survey of the vast underwater geoduck beds in the midst of a coccolithophore bloom. Blair said he noticed that the geoducks weren’t eating, and the light levels appeared to be reduced.

Tiffany Royal, a public information officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, wrote about his finding, quoting Blair in a news release: “Now we want to know two things: if there is a correlation between low crab and shrimp abundance when there is a coccolithophore bloom, and if there is reduction in food production in the water column for all shellfish nutrition.”

Tribal biologists are taking samples of water for concentrations of plankton while also looking at water chemistry. They are also testing for light levels inside and outside the plankton blooms.

Since the coccolithophores seem to dominate the waters after other major plankton species have declined, it is important to know whether shellfish will eat the coccolithophores, Blair said. They aren’t toxic, but their shells may be too abrasive for the shellfish to consume, he noted.

Seth Book, a tribal biologist who coordinates with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, told me that he is interested in the ecological role that coccolithophores play in Hood Canal, which is known for its low-oxygen conditions and occasional fish kills.

“We are concerned with potential reduction in primary productivity due to reflection and light attenuation, which means less food for shellfish,” he wrote in an email. “We have started to call it an ecosystem-disrupting harmful algal boom. Not toxic that we know of, but it appears to have impacts other than pretty water.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also complicates the picture. Since coccoliths are made of calcium carbonate, they might play a significant role in the carbon chemistry of Hood Canal — given their sheer number during a major plankton bloom.

The investigation of coccolithophores in Hood Canal is funded by a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A report is expected in the fall, and the tribe will follow with a mitigation plan that considers how to reduce damage to shellfish resources.

“The tribes have been here thousands of years and will continue to be here,” Seth said in the news release. “It could be a natural cycle, but what we’re seeing is having implications to shellfish and treaty resources. It could possibly spread to other parts of Puget Sound as well.

Amusing Monday: Mysterious shipworms brought back for study

The vessel, though her masts be firm,
Beneath her copper bears a worm….

Far from New England’s blustering shore,
New England’s worm her hulk shall bore,
And sink her in the Indian seas,
Twine, wine, and hides, and China teas.

Selected lines from “Though All the Fates,” Henry David Thoreau

Tall-masted wooden ships of a bygone era were often plagued by shipworms, which could turn a ship’s hull into something resembling swiss cheese. Many shipwrecks were blamed on structural weakness caused by shipworms, of which there are an amazing variety of species.

Shipworms are not actually worms but long, skinny clams. It turns out that the slimy mollusks are well known among residents of the Philippines, where the elongated clams are hunted in unusual places and eaten with delight. Stories of strange freshwater shipworms in the Philippines have been tracked down by researchers, who are making new discoveries about these ancient creatures.

In a research paper published last month, an international team of scientists reported on a shipworm that eats rocks. Like the shipworms that eat wood, this newly described species uses the shell at the end of its body for burrowing. The difference is that the rock-boring clam seems to grind up and digest rocks while excreting sandy fragments.

Wood-boring shipworms have come under recent attention for their ability to digest wood with the assistance of symbiotic bacteria. Some researchers hope the bacteria will be useful in discovering new antibiotics or in the development of new sources of organic-based fuels.

What benefit the rock-boring species might be getting by eating rocks has not yet been identified. Perhaps they use the ground-up rocks to digest plankton that they suck from the water. Perhaps they are extracting some unknown nutrients from the rocks.

Lithoredo abatanica, rock-eating shipworm
Photo: Dan Distel, Northeastern University

In search of the mystical rock-eating clam, the researchers traveled to the Abatan River near Bohol, Philippines, an area with mudstone cliffs, according to Reuben Shipway, lead author of the paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

“We actually got a really good tip-off from one of the locals, who must have been quite bemused by what we were doing,” said Shipway, quoted in a news release by Laura Castañón of Northeastern University. “They said, ‘Look in the rocks on the bottom of the river and you’ll be able to find these animals.’”

Genetic studies of the bacteria from the rock-eating clams are underway, according to Daniel Distel of Northeastern University, another member of the research team, called Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Collaborative Biodiversity Group.

“It’s already looking very, very interesting,” Distel told science writer Veronica Greenwood of the New York Times. “What we can say is that the bacteria we find in the gills are not related to the bacteria we’ve found in any other shipworm to date.”

The researchers have provisionally named the clam by giving it a new genus and species, Lithoredo Abatanica, although it is known to the locals as “antingaw” and is believed to help mothers with lactation.

The rock-eating clam is gathered and eaten by local residents, who typically cut it down the middle, turn it inside out and rinse it well to remove the sand, according to Kristy Hamilton, writing for IFL Science.

“It is best eaten raw dipped in a pickling sauce known as kinilaw (vinegar, onions, ginger and a bit of salt),” Warlita Manug Armildez of Bohol was quoted as saying. “It has a slippery but slightly crunchy texture, but if left in the vinegar for too long it becomes soft. It has a fishy seafood taste, a bit like sea cucumber, before dipping in the sauce.”

The taste for shipworms was credited with the discovery of another interesting species a couple years ago. Scientists knew about a giant shipworm from its pipelike skeletal remains, but they had no recent living specimens.

A television show in the Philippines, called “Kapuso Mo Jessico Soho,” featured a group of people who ate the long creature for its curative powers as well as its taste. A researcher at the University of the Philippines saw the show and reported it to others studying a variety of shipworm clams and their symbiotic bacteria.

After confirming the existence of the giant clam, the researchers traveled to the Sultan Kudarat province and met up with researchers from Sultan Kudarat State University. Leading the team was Marvin Altamia, a UP researcher affiliated with the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Group.

They found their giant research subjects in a lagoon of rotting wood and other decaying matter. The long clams were not growing on the wood but rather were buried in the black muck, according to the account told by Jo Florendo B. Lantoc, a writer for the University of the Philippines.

“The animal easily fell into notoriety as a science fiction horror creature feature,” Lantoc wrote. “The black slimy body resembles that of a worm from hell. Its ‘head’ is all mouth with two ‘beaks’ for lips, and its tail ends with a pair of siphons and stalk-looking ‘pallets.’”

The bacteria were analyzed and found to metabolize hydrogen sulfide that was in abundance in the marsh. Somehow during evolution, the shipworms had switched from eating wood to eating nothing except for the gases emerging from the oxygen-free swamp. It developed a calcium tube for protection and oversize gills for gas absorption.

From studies of the giant shipworm, scientists were able to add to the stepping-stone theory of evolution, which describes how one symbiotic creature can quickly displace another during a forced transition to a new environment. Check out the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another take on the story was offered by KSL-TV in Salt Lake city.

Closer to home, another interesting story about shipworms involves a search along the West Coast to see whether invasive species, such as shipworms, may have arrived with debris from the Japanese tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The story is about University of Oregon researcher Nancy Treneman, who developed special skills for finding interesting creatures among the debris that landed on the beach. Read the engaging article by Washington state writer Sarah Gilman in Hakai Magazine.

Orca researchers spot newest member of J pod and find that she’s a girl!

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.
——

The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

The newest Puget Sound orca, J-56, with her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

It was the first time that any of the orcas have been seen in Puget Sound waters in more than two months, the center noted in a written statement. Years ago, all three pods of southern residents would typically return to the inland waters in late May or early June. Their absence in recent years has been blamed on a shortage of chinook salmon — their primary prey.

On Friday, the arrival of J and K pods was welcomed by a crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, where observers are able to watch the whales from shore.

“Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, the new mother J-31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females,” the center reported. “It looked very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population. In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!

“This is a very welcome addition to this endangered population of whales that has experienced so much bad news recently, with whales appearing skinny and passing away,” the statement continues.

Having a new female among the Puget Sound clans is especially promising to the population. If she can survive and remain healthy, this new addition may add one or more young whales to the population.

The new baby whale was designated J-56, and her probable birth date was listed as May 24. Her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi, was reported to have had an unsuccessful birth in 2016 with no other known pregnancies. Tsuchi has been seen to help several other new mothers in recent years, however.

As with each new encounter by scientists with the Center for Whale Research, photos were taken of the whales seen on Friday. Once all the groups have been observed and the researchers are confident that they’ve seen all the whales still alive, the center typically releases a report of any whales presumed to have died.

The official census of the southern resident killer whale population provides a listing of the whales that have been born and died over the past year, effective July 1. The report is provided to the National Marine Fisheries Service on or before Oct. 1.

The newborn orca was first sighted by researchers affiliated with a whale-watching company on May 30 near Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The young whale was spotted again the next day by a research contractor with the Canadian government and then again on June 9 by the whale-watch researchers, according to the statement from the Center for Whale Research.

“We had numerous reports from colleagues with Environment Canada and others of the SRKW pods feeding along the coast of British Columbia in May and June this year during a time when they historically frequented interior waters of the Salish Sea to feed on the early summer runs of Chinook salmon bound for the Fraser River,” the statement says.

“The salmon runs to the Fraser River have been very poor in recent years, so the whales must feed in coastal waters to survive.”

What do people truly believe when it comes to climate change?

Nationwide polls show that more and more people believe that humans are responsible for increasing greenhouse gases and thus altering our climate — including unusual changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and disruptions in the oceanic food web.

I keep waiting for public opinion to reach a critical mass, so that government officials feel compelled to take serious actions to get climate change under control.

Instead, we see President Trump ordering rollbacks on regulations designed to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants and automobiles. The result will be a greater rate of climate change.

“Americans want reliable energy that they can afford,” declared Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announcing why the Trump administration supports greater carbon dioxide emissions.

The rollback helps Trump fulfill his campaign promise to revitalize the coal industry — although coal plants continue to close as a result of competition from cheaper natural-gas and renewable-energy sources. Reporter Ellen Knickermeyer’s covered the story for The Associated Press.

Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA during the Obama administration, was quoted as saying that Trump officials have “made painfully clear that they are incapable of rising to the challenge and tackling this crisis. They have shown a callous disregard for EPA’s mission, a pattern of climate science denial and an inexcusable indifference to the consequences of climate change.”

A large majority of Americans now believe that global warming is taking place, and 62 percent say global warming is caused mostly by human activities, according to an ongoing survey by Yale University and George Mason University.

One reason for the shift in public opinion may be the increasing number of extreme events, such as drought, forest fires, floods and hurricanes, which are influenced by the worldwide change in temperatures. Disasters help to make the somewhat abstract idea of global warming more tangible in people’s minds, wrote reporter Umair Irfan in an article in Vox magazine.

Irfan quoted Anthony Leiserowitz, who helped write the Yale report: “You can experience a drought, flood or hurricane, but you can’t experience global temperatures going up.”

A new study of six Colorado communities following severe flooding in 2016 and 2017 found that widespread flooding across a community caused more people to blame the event on climate change. In contrast, flooding over a small area rarely brings climate change to mind.

“How our community or neighborhood fares — the damages it suffers — may have a stronger and more lasting effect on our climate beliefs than individual impacts do,” said Elizabeth A. Albright, assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, as quoted in a Duke University news release. The study by Albright and Deseral Crow of the University of Colorado, Denver, was published online by the journal Climatic Change.

As attitudes change about the effects of climate change, the number of outright “deniers” has been shrinking. Politically, Democrats are becoming more outspoken, while more Republicans acknowledge that there is a problem, as Irfan describes in his story.

Even Wheeler, the EPA administrator leading the reversal of climate-change regulations, expressed concern about the future during his Senate confirmation hearings. On a scale from 1 to 10, “with 10 being you stay awake at night worrying about it,” Wheeler said he would rank climate change as an 8.

“Really?” responded an incredulous Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who asked the question, knowing that Wheeler’s actions don’t seem to match his concerns.

Clearly, it is one thing to be concerned about climate change and another thing to do something about it.

Public-opinion polls could help politicians decide if their constituents are ready for actions to address climate change. But the polls themselves may not provide reliable answers, because it all depends on how the survey questions are asked, said Matthew Motta of Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the polling issue.

“People’s beliefs about climate change play an important role in how they think about solutions to it,” said Motta in a news release about his latest study. “If we can’t accurately measure those beliefs, we may be under- or over-estimating their support for different solutions. If we want to understand why the public supports or opposes different policy solutions to climate change, we need to understand what their views are on the science.”

For an example of a simple question that can result in different answers, consider the various ways of asking this question, as described in supplemental materials:
Which of these three statements about the Earth’s temperature comes closest to your view?

  1. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.
  2. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth’s environment .
  3. There is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer.
  4. Don’t know

The authors concluded from their research that if pollsters remove the option “don’t know” from the list of answers, it tends to push responders toward answers that support the idea of human-caused climate change even when the responders are not convinced.

When an explanatory paragraph precedes the answers, it tends to promote certain answers even more, as in this example:

Global warming refers to the recent and ongoing rise in global average temperature near the Earth’s surface. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses is the primary cause of global warming. Global warming, in turn, is causing climate patterns to change. Climate change includes major changes in temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, or other effects that occur over several decades or longer.

Which of these three statements about the Earth’s temperature comes closest to your view?

  1. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.
  2. The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural patterns in the Earth’s environment.
  3. There is no solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer.
  4. Don’t know

Again the presence or absence of the “Don’t know” option can alter the survey results.

Another method of polling is the agree-disagree approach. Consider the explanatory paragraph above followed by a statement and agree-disagree options:

The Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels

  1. Strongly agree
  2. Moderately agree
  3. Slightly agree
  4. Neither agree nor disagree
  5. Slightly disagree
  6. Moderately disagree
  7. Strongly disagree
  8. Don’t know

In this case, the inclusion of an explanatory paragraph tends to tilt the answer one way and the “Don’t know” option the other way. The authors of the study also discuss the concept of “acquiescence bias,” in which respondents are more likely to “agree” with a statement to avoid appearing disagreeable or being forced to think deeply about a complicated subject.

In the study, the so-called “Pew Style,” based on 1) clear answers, 2) no explanatory text and 3) an option for “don’t know,” resulted in a 50/50 split between those who believe in human-caused climate change and those who don’t. That’s the lowest percentage of any approach.

The researchers found that the greatest support for the idea of human-caused climate change came when using the agree-disagree approach, including an explanatory paragraph and avoiding the “don’t know” option. The result was 71 percent, compared to 50 percent.

These numbers — 50 and 71 percent — don’t actually represent the beliefs of the general population, because the researchers did not survey a representative sample.

This is a lesson I learned long ago when reviewing public-opinion surveys: Don’t just look at the summary put together by pollsters; look at the questions and the possible answers. Do they fairly allow alternative views to be represented?

While public opinion is important, many reasonable people are suspicious of polls, especially one-time polls on complicated subjects. It is better to look at trends, using polls that repeat the same questions over time.

Several studies have shown how difficult it is to change people’s minds about climate change. The best approach, researchers say, is to blend scientific facts into stories about people — whether it be families affected by disaster, scientists working to understand the forces of nature, people who have changed their minds about climate change, and so on.

Most of us have heard the suggestion of contacting our congressional representatives if we want change at high levels. I’ve always wondered how true that might be. I can only comment that during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., many of our lawmakers stressed that they truly are interested in hearing from their constituents, whether through a letter, email or a phone message, or at a town hall meeting. It’s definitely something to consider.

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.

Ocean acidification gets attention in four bills passed by the U.S. House

The issue of ocean acidification gained some traction this week in the U.S. House of Representatives, where bipartisan support led to the approval of four bills designed to bring new ideas into the battle to save sea life from corrosive waters.

If passed by the Senate, the legislation would allow federal agencies to set up competitions and offer prize money for the best ideas for reducing ocean acidification, adapting to ongoing changes or solving difficult research problems. The bills also foster discussions about climate change by bringing more people to the table while providing increased attention to the deadly conditions that are developing along the coasts and in estuaries, such as Puget Sound.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

“We know that changing ocean chemistry threatens entire livelihoods and industries in our state, said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, in a press release. “There are generations of folks in our coastal communities who have worked in fishing and shellfish growing — but that’s endangered if we don’t maintain a healthy Pacific Ocean.”

Later in this blog post, I will reflect on other Kilmer-related issues, including the so-called Puget Sound Day on the Hill.

In a phone conversation, Rep. Kilmer told me that he was encouraged with the widespread support for a bill that he sponsored called the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2019 (HR 1921), which passed the House on a 395-22 vote. The bill would allow federal agencies to sponsor competitions and offer prize money for the best ideas. Money would come out of existing funds that agencies use for related purposes. The bill was co-sponsored by Northwest Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, along with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, and Rep. Don Young, an Alaskan Republican. Five representatives from coastal areas in other parts of the country added their names to the bill.

“There is a legitimate problem, and people are beginning to see the impacts of the changing ocean chemistry,” Derek said. “This should a bipartisan issue.”

Both Democrats and Republicans from coastal regions of the country are hearing from people in the fishing and shellfish industries about threats to their livelihoods from ocean acidification. For some lawmakers that is a more practical and immediate problem than just focusing on the environmental catastrophe shaping up along the coasts.

“A whole lot of people in D.C. still don’t get it; that’s just a reality,” Derek said with respect to the closely related causes of ocean acidification and climate change. President Trump, he noted, has never backed down from his assertion that the climate crisis is a hoax.

“By coming out of the House with 325 votes, we hope to provide some traction with forward motion going into the Senate,” he said of his plan to foster innovations for addressing ocean acidification.

The bill was crafted in consultation with various groups, including the XPRIZE Foundation, which has demonstrated how the power of competition can launch a $2-billion private space industry, according to Kilmer. The Ansari XPRIZE competition resulted in 26 teams competing for $10 million, yielding more than $100 million in space-research projects, he noted.

Rep. Herrera Beutler said she, too, is optimistic that the legislation will lead to innovative solutions.

“Shellfish and fishing industry jobs in Pacific County are jeopardized by the detrimental effects of ocean acidification…,” she said, “and I’m pleased that my House colleagues gave it their strong approval. The next step is approval by the U.S. Senate, and I’ll continue advocating for this legislative approach to protecting fishing businesses and jobs.”

Increasing acidity of ocean water has been shown to result from increasing carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere. The effect is exacerbated by land-based sources of nitrogen, which can increase the growth of algae and other plants that eventually die and decay, thus decreasing oxygen while further increasing carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide readily converts to carbonic acid, which can impair the critical growth of shells in commercially valuable shellfish, such as oysters and crabs, as well as pteropods and other tiny organisms that play a key role in the food web — including herring, salmon, right up to killer whales.

The problem is even worse along the Pacific Northwest Coast, where natural upwelling brings deep, acidified and nitrogen-rich waters to the surface after circulating at depth in the oceans for decades, if not centuries.

To help people understand the economic threat, Kilmer cites studies that estimate the value of shellfish to the Northwest’s economy:

Other ocean acidification bills passed by the House and sent on to the Senate:

Puget Sound Day on the Hill

About three weeks ago, on a reporting project for Puget Sound Institute, I joined more than 70 people who traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with congressional leaders. Climate change and ocean acidification were among the many Puget Sound concerns discussed during the series of meetings.

The annual event is called Puget Sound Day on the Hill, and it includes representatives of state and local governments, Indian tribes, environmental groups and businesses. Participants may share their own particular interests, but their primary goal is to get the federal government to invest in protecting and restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem — the same type of investment that the Washington Legislature expanded upon this year.

During those meetings, Kilmer expressed optimism that federal funding for salmon and orca recovery would match or exceed that of the past two years, when President Trump in his budget proposed major cuts or elimination of many environmental programs. Congress managed to keep the programs going.

Here are my reports from that trip:

Fix Congress Committee

During the trip to Washington, D.C., I learned that Derek Kilmer is chairing a new bipartisan committee nicknamed the “Fix Congress Committee,” formally known as the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Goals include improving transparency of government operations, reducing staff turnover to heighten expertise, and implementing new technology. High on the list of challenges is improving the budget and appropriations process, which Kilmer called “completely off the rails.”

The committee recently released its first recommendations with five specific ideas to “open up” Congress. Check out the news release posted May 23 or read the news article by reporter Paul Kane in the Washington Post. One can stay up to date with the committee’s Facebook page.

Derek tells me that many more recommendations will be proposed by the end of the year. If you are interested in the workings of Congress or would like to follow bills as they work their way through the process, you might want to review the videos of committee meetings.

I found it interesting to learn about all the things that technology can do. One of my complaints is that it is difficult to compare final versions of a bill with its initial draft, not to mention all the amendments along the way. Current technology would allow two versions of a bill to be compared easily with a simple keystroke.

“Some technology issues are simple, and some will take more time,” Derek told me, adding that the committee’s staff is limited but some of the ideas are being developed by staffers who work for House members. Some of the ideas are being developed by outside groups.

Other specific issues to be addressed by the committee include scheduling issues; policies to develop the next generation of leaders; ideas for recruiting and retaining the best staffers; and efficiencies in purchasing, travel and sharing staff.

Legislative Action Award to Kilmer

Rep. Kilmer is among six members of Congress — two senators and four representatives — to be honored this year with a Legislative Action Award from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank that promotes good ideas coming from both Republicans and Democrats.

“The Legislative Action Awards recognize members with the unique capacity to identify common interests and get things done,” said BPC President Jason Grumet in a March 13 news release. “It takes real skill and commitment to govern a divided country.

“Thankfully,” he continued, “there are still true legislators in the Congress who understand how to build coalitions that deliver sound policy for the American people. It is an honor to recognize six of these leaders today and remind the public that principled collaboration is the essence of effective democracy.”

In accepting the award, Derek issued this statement: “The folks I represent want to get the economy on track — and they want Congress to get on track too. In recent years, there’s been far too much partisan bickering and far too little Congress. That’s why I’ve been so committed to finding common ground.

“Congress is at its best when people listen and learn from one another to find the policies that will move our country forward. It’s an honor to receive this award, and I thank the Bipartisan Policy Center for encouraging members of Congress to work together for the common good.”

A second orca calf has been born among the Southern Residents

A new orca calf in J pod is seen swimming with several females.
Photo: John Forde and Jennifer Steven, The Whale Centre

A new baby orca has been born in J pod — one of the three critically endangered Southern Resident pods — and a new wave of hope is rippling through the community of whale supporters.

The calf was spotted and photographed Thursday off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia by John Forde and Jennifer Steven. The encounter was just south of Gowland Rocks in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

“That was really exciting,” Jennifer told me about the encounter. “We are super hopeful that this calf will make it and add to the population.”

This is the second orca to be born among the Southern Residents this year. Before 2019, no successful births had occurred since 2016. The first one this year was designated L-124 and was born in January to L-77 (named Matia). At last report, the youngster was doing well.

The new calf’s mother has not yet been identified. Jennifer said the newborn was seen with several J-pod females, the closest being J-31, known as Tsuchi. This is a 24-year-old orca known for assisting new mothers. Jennifer and John sent their photographs to the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island for official identification.

Ken Balcomb, director of the center, told me that more observations will be needed to confirm the mother. Another researcher associated with the center was able to find the calf Friday not far from the initial sighting, but the waters were rough, Ken said. I’m waiting for more information.

Jennifer reported that the young calf had the orange coloration of a newborn as well as fetal folds, which are caused by being bent over in the womb. The folds tend to disappear a few weeks after birth, and Ken’s best guess is that the calf is one to three weeks old.

John and Jennifer are owners of The Whale Centre, a whale-watching company in Tofino, B.C. When they spotted the whales Thursday, their boat was not carrying passengers. Instead, the two were working as whale researchers under a permit from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Jennifer wrote about the encounter in a blog entry on The Whale Center’s website, where she posted some of the photos that she and John took. After the new calf was spotted, whale-watching boats stayed away to give the whales room, she said.

The Center for Whale Research has maintained an annual census of the Southern Residents since 1976. Ken and his staff have not just kept records of the number of whales but also their close-knit family structures, including who is related to whom.

Killer whales belong to a matriarchal society in which older females lead the family groups and the whales stay with their mothers for life.

A decline in the orca population since 1997 led NOAA Fisheries to list the Southern Residents as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005.

Following captures for marine parks in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the population recovered until 1997, when their numbers reached 98 whales. A general decline followed until last year when they were down to 74. The two new calves bring the current count to 76.

Gray whale deaths lead to declaration of ‘unusual mortality event’

As more gray whales wash up dead on beaches in Puget Sound and along the West Coast, NOAA Fisheries has declared an “unusual mortality event” to mobilize additional research into what is killing these massive marine mammals.

Aerial images, such as this one off Central California, help biologists assess the condition of gray whales as part of a declared “unusual mortality event.”
Photo: Southwest Fisheries Science Center and SR3 under federal permits NMFS 19091 and MBNMS 2017-8.

About 70 gray whales have been found dead so far this year along the shorelines of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, with another 73 in Mexico and five in Canada. That’s the most since the year 2000, when more than 100 gray whales were stranded along the U.S. West Coast, triggering a previous unusual mortality event, or UME.

Many of the dead whales have shown signs of emaciation, suggesting that they failed to find enough food in the Arctic last summer, a time when they need to build up enough energy reserves to make it through the winter. Each year, the Eastern North Pacific gray whales travel from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their over-wintering areas in Mexico. As they return north at this time of year, they could be exhausting the remainder of their fat reserves, experts say.

A gray whale found dead at Washington state’s Leadbetter Point State Park near Long Beach was examined and found to be unusually thin.
Photo: John Weldon, Northern Oregon/Southern Washington Marine Mammal Stranding Program.

Not all the dead animals are showing signs of malnutrition. Other possible causes of death can include contaminants, environmental conditions, disease and being struck by moving ships. At least three of the animals were killed by ships.

The 70 whales found dead in U.S. waters this year compare to an average of 15 whales found stranded during the same January-through-May time period over the past 18 years. That number is just a fraction of the whales that actually died, however, since only 4 to 13 percent of dead gray whales are ever recovered, according to a study from the last UME.

For Washington state, the migration is about halfway through, while it is just beginning in Alaska, so officials predict that more gray whales will perish before they make it back to their feeding grounds. Of the 70 dead gray whales found on U.S. beaches so far, 37 stranded in California, 25 in Washington, five in Alaska and three in Oregon.

The total population of gray whales along the West Coast is estimated at 27,000, up from about 16,000 following the UME in 2000, when the population dropped by about 5,000 whales, according to Dave Weller, research wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“We know the population can recover, given that all the other parameters remain the same, that the environment remain the same and there is enough food,” Weller said during a telephone news conference this afternoon.

“I would say that the number-one priority is learning as much as we can from the stranded animals,” he added. “Our monitoring will continue, and we will do another abundance estimate … and we’ll also be following calf production. We’ve got our finger on the pulse, and we will continue to monitor it closely.”

The number of calves born this year also appears to be down from average, as it has been in previous unusual mortality events. Whether feeding conditions will be better this year has not yet been determined.

Sue Moore, a biological oceanographer at the University of Washington, said gray whales eat a variety of things, and they can go where food is available. But conditions in the Arctic are changing rapidly, and it isn’t clear yet if they are eating amphipods — tiny shrimplike creatures that normally sustain them — or if they are shifting to other kinds of prey.

The sheer number of gray whales also may be a factor, in that their feeding areas could be reaching “carrying capacity” — although the experts stress that the number of whales that can be supported in the Arctic will vary, depending on environmental conditions that can increase or decrease prey populations.

“Carrying capacity varies by year,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. “It certainly plays a role. How I would view it, too, is when animals are closer to the limits of the food supply is when you would start to see a portion of the population that isn’t as fit become more vulnerable.”

John noted that during these high-mortality incidents, more gray whales seem to come into Puget Sound and other busy estuaries, including San Francisco Bay. As a result, they are more likely to be hit by ships or become entangled in fishing nets.

Sue Moore said reports of deaths among other marine mammals, such as sea lions and walruses, will be investigated as part of the effort to understand the gray whale deaths and the overall ecosystem.

“In our investigation, we will bring in experts on gray whales, but we will bring in experts on the larger environment, and that includes other animals,” she said. “We do have some die-offs of birds along the California Coast, so we want to know if what is affecting the birds is different or the same as what is affecting the whales.”

Unusual mortality events can be declared by NOAA Fisheries when there is a significant die-off of any marine mammal species. In this case, the agency cited two of seven possible criteria used to declare a UME:

  • 1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records, and
  • 5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition (e.g., blubber thickness).

The UME declaration can be used to mobilize a special UME Contingency Fund to reimburse people who officially help with the investigation. People may contribute to the fund or to local stranding networks on the NOAA Fisheries website.

Anyone who sees a dead, injured or stranded marine mammals is asked to call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (866) 767-6114. Only local and state officials and those authorized by NOAA Fisheries may legally handle live or dead marine mammals.

The annual gray whale migration — some 10,000 to 12,000 miles — is said to be the longest migration of any mammal. Adult grays can reach up to 46 feet long.