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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Amusing Monday: SeaDoc followers go wild with new video series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unnamed stream could be named LeCuyer Creek for KPUD hydrologist

UPDATE, MAY 31
The name LeCuyer Creek was approved yesterday by the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names. The name change now goes to the state Board of Natural Resources, which sits as the state Board of Geographic Names. Action is normally a formality. The name, which will be recognized for state business, will be forwarded to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which is likely to adopt it for federal actions as well.
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The late Jim LeCuyer, who developed a system of monitoring rainfall, streamflow and groundwater levels in Kitsap County, could be memorialized next week when a stream near Kingston is officially named LeCuyer Creek.

Jim LeCuyer

The state’s Committee on Geographic Names will meet Tuesday Thursday to consider the proposed stream name in honor of LeCuyer, who died in 2012 from a blood disorder.

Jim, who joined the Kitsap Public Utility District in 1984, came to understand the water cycle on the Kitsap Peninsula perhaps better than anyone else. When Jim took the job, one of the looming questions for government officials was whether the peninsula would have enough water to serve the massive influx of people who were coming to Kitsap County.

“Jim started doing hydrological monitoring about 1991,” said Mark Morgan, KPUD’s water resources manager who proposed the name LeCuyer Creek. “What he developed became one of the best monitoring systems in the state, some say on the West Coast.”

It is Jim’s system that I use when I report on water conditions in North, Central and South Kitsap, which are widely different most of the time.

Since Kitsap has no mountain glaciers or snowpack, all the water we get falls from the sky. It then either soaks into the ground or becomes part of a stream. Jim’s ambitious goal was to account for all that water and let people know when low groundwater levels were threatening water supplies or when low streamflows were affecting salmon spawning.

For the system to work well, the data must be rigorously and consistently maintained, month after month, year after year, Mark told me. There is no room for a haphazard approach, and Jim was steadfast in his work.

Beyond that, I can personally testify that Jim was good at putting pieces of the puzzle together, using numbers to prove his point. He would sometimes call me, especially during low-water years to explain the threat to wells and the need for people to conserve water.

A stream on Miller Bay in North Kitsap would be named LeCuyer Creek under new proposal.

I would arrive at Jim’s office, and he would spread out colorful charts and graphs across the top of the table. Then he would proceed to explain, calmly and patiently, the technical details and answer my questions.

“The data and systems we have today is because of Jim,” said Bob Hunter, general manager of Kitsap Public Utility District. “He knew we were in a unique spot on this peninsula with no glacial runoff. It was his idea to collect the data to determine if (the water supply) is influenced by the water purveyors or if it is truly tied to rainfall.”

Those questions are still being pursued, but it appears from the latest studies that the Kitsap Peninsula will have adequate water supplies for the foreseeable future, provided people adopt a variety of conservation measures and that utilities are able to move water from place to place.

In early 2012, looking forward to retirement, Jim sat down with Bob to discuss the future.

“I told him that I wanted him to hire his replacement,” Bob recalled, adding that continuity was so important that he wanted the new person to have a year to learn from Jim. The PUD went through the normal hiring process and interviewed several applicants.

After the search had gone on awhile, Jim came to Bob and said, “I know of only one person who you can trust with managing the data,” according to Bob who added, “Knowing Jim as long as I did, I knew he meant that.”

Jim recommended his own son, Joel, for the job, and the KPUD board approved the hire, which has worked out well for everyone.

While Joel was in training, his father came down with an illness and was taken to Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton, where he died. After his death, his family learned that he had a form of lymphoma.

The stream chosen to bear the name LeCuyer Creek drains into Miller Bay near White Horse Golf Course west of Kingston, where Jim and his family lived for about 20 years before moving to Port Ludlow. The stream is a little more than a half-mile long and has never had an official name.

Born April 10, 1953, Jim received bachelor degrees in environmental science and biochemistry from Saint John’s University and the University of Minnesota. He worked for Northern States Power Company and Grain Belt Brewery, both in Minneapolis, and Honeywell in Deer Park, Ill., before moving to Seattle, where he took a job with James Brinkley Company, which manufactures equipment for pulp and paper mills.

In 1984, Jim went to work for Kitsap Public Utility District, where I first met him. At the time, he was scrambling to add new data by testing monitoring wells throughout Kitsap County. Check out the Kitsap Sun, Nov. 12, 1991. Among the stories I wrote involving Jim was a drought in 2009 — a condition we may be facing again this year. See Kitsap Sun Oct. 3, 2009.

Jim, whose family said his work with KPUD was “the job of his dreams,” also loved outdoor sports, animals and spending time with his family. He was 59 years old when he died on Dec. 10, 2012. In addition to his son Joel, he is survived by his wife, Jody; his daughter, Jackie; and two brothers, Bob and Bill.

The Committee on Geographic Names will hold a hearing on the proposed name LeCuyer Creek on Thursday in Olympia. To provide comments, go to the webpage of the Committee on Geographic Names within the Department of Natural Resources.

Amusing Monday: Student artists share views of rare species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectacled eider by ©Krista Bueno
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

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

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

Humpback whale by ©Annette Yuan
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

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

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

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

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

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

Other information: