Tag Archives: plankton

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.

Hood Canal changes color again, thanks to plankton bloom

Hood Canal has changed colors again, shifting to shades of bimini green, as it did in 2016, when satellite photos showed the canal standing out starkly among all other waters in the Northwest.

Hood Canal has changed colors as a result of a plankton bloom, as shown in this aerial photo taken in Northern Hood Canal.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Washington Ecology

The color change is caused by a bloom of a specific type of plankton called a coccolithophore, which shows up in nutrient-poor waters. The single-celled organism produces shells made of calcite, which reflect light to produce the unusual color.

Observers are now waiting for the clouds to depart, so we can get new satellite images of the green waters.

The plankton bloom started June 1 in Quilcene and Dabob bays, according to Teri King of Washington Sea Grant. It came about a week earlier than last year and has since spread through Hood Canal. Observers in the Seabeck area reported seeing the bloom the past few days. The bimini green color, which gets its name from an island in the Bahamas, is especially noticeable when the sun comes out.

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Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories:

Automated monitor provides early warning of harmful algae blooms

Automated equipment installed Monday off the Washington Coast will track concentrations of six species of plankton that could become harmful to humans and marine species.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, collects discrete samples of water and processes them for analysis. Imbedded modules can test for DNA and antibodies to identify the organisms picked up in the seawater. Concentrations of the plankton and their toxins are sent to shore-based researchers via satellite.

The equipment was installed by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington. The device was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Stephanie Moore of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains the benefits of the device in the first video on this page. The second video provides a few more technical details with graphic depictions of the device.

The ESP was deployed in the Juan de Fuca eddy, a known pathway for toxic algae 13 miles off the Washington Coast near LaPush. The remote, self-operating laboratory will operate about 50 feet underwater.

One of the primary targets of the monitoring is Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algae capable of producing domoic acid. This toxin can accumulate in shellfish and can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which can progress to severe illness. Last year, a massive bloom of this toxic algae canceled scheduled razor clam seasons on Washington beaches with untold economic consequences.

The harmful algal bloom (HAB) affected the entire West Coast, from California to Alaska. It was the largest and longest-lasting bloom in at least 15 years, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“Concentrations of domoic acid in seawater, some forage fish and crab samples were among the highest ever reported in this region,” says a factsheet from the service. “By mid-May, domoic acid concentrations in Monterey Bay, California, were 10 to 30 times the level that would be considered high for a normal Pseudo-nitzschia bloom.”

“Other HAB toxins were also detected on the West Coast. Shellfish closures in Puget Sound protected consumers from paralytic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning.”

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is associated with a group of plankton called Alexandrium, typically Alexandrium catenella in the Puget Sound region.

In addition to sampling for Alexandrium and four species of Pseudo-nitzchia, the ESP is monitoring for Heterosigma akashiwo, which is associated with massive fish kills, including farmed salmon.

Anyone can track some of the data generated by the equipment by visiting NANOOS — the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

Early warning of toxic algal blooms can assist state and local health officials in their surveillance of toxic shellfish.

“Anyone can access the data in near-real-time,” UW oceanographer and NANOOS Director Jan Newton told Hannah Hickey of UW News and Information. “It’s an early warning sentry.”

Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

We just completed another group of stories in the ongoing series we’re calling “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” This latest story package is about marine water quality and marine sediments. (The stories themselves require a subscription.)

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound
Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

For all my years of environmental reporting, I have to say that I’ve never really understood the meaning of water quality. Keeping the water free of chemicals and fecal bacteria is one thing. Safe levels of oxygen, temperature, acidity and suspended sediment are other important factors.

But in the real world, you never find ideal conditions. You take what you get: physical conditions dictated by weather, climate and bathymetry; a strange brew of toxic chemicals; and a mix of nutrients and organic material, all drifting through complex cycles of life and death.

Water quality means nothing without the context of living things. More than 1,000 species of tiny organisms live in or on the mud at the bottom of Puget Sound. In many areas, sensitive species have disappeared. We are left with those that can tolerate harsher conditions. Why are they dying off? What can be done about it?

Some plankton species are becoming more dominant, and the effects on the food web are unknown. When water quality is poor, Jellyfish are displacing forage fish, disrupting the food supply for larger fish.

We know that toxic chemicals are spilling into Puget Sound in stormwater and getting into the food web, first touching the tiniest organisms and eventually causing havoc for fish, marine mammals and humans. Compounds that mimic hormones are affecting growth, reproduction and survival for a myriad of species. Because of biomagnification, some chemicals are having serious effects at concentrations that could not be measured until recently.

Puget Sound can’t cleanse itself by flushing its chemicals and waste out to sea, as most bays do. Puget Sound is long and narrow and deep, and the exchange of water takes a long time. Most of the bad stuff floating in the water just sloshes back and forth with the daily tides.

We can’t forget that some of the good stuff floating around are microscopic plants that feed the food web, along with a variety of larvae that will grow into fish, shellfish and many other creatures. But many of these planktonic life forms are vulnerable to chemicals, which can reduce their ability to survive against predators, tipping the balance in unknown ways.

Understanding water quality is not so much about measuring what is in the water as understanding the effects on living things. Which species are missing from a given area of Puget Sound, and what killed them off?

Biological monitoring has been around for a long time, but we may be entering a new phase of exploration in which we begin to connect the dots between what takes place on the land, how chemicals and nutrients get into the water, and what that means for every creature struggling to survive.

We have some brilliant people working on this problem in the Puget Sound region. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me gain a better understanding of these issues, as I attempt to explain these complexities in my stories.

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While I was looking into the sediment story, Maggie Dutch of Ecology’s sediment monitoring team introduced me to a huge number of benthic invertebrates. In a blog she calls “Eyes Under Puget Sound,” she talks about the monitoring program and offers a slideshow of some of the bottom creatures. See also Ecology’s Flickr page.

For some amazing shots of polychaete worms, check out the work of marine biologist and photographer Alex Semenov who took these colorful pix in Russia and Australia.

Plankton bloom in Puget Sound: art on the water

Eyes Over Puget Sound shot some amazing plankton blooms this week, including this one between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Photo courtesy of EOPS
Eyes Over Puget Sound shot some amazing plankton blooms this week, including this one between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. / Photos courtesy of EOPS

Team members for Eyes Over Puget Sound, a Washington Department of Ecology program, were excited to discover and report on a second major plankton bloom during their flight this week.

Here are a few notes provided in the latest EOPS report, dated June 17, presumably by team leader Christopher Krembs:

Bloom2

“The real show came at the end of the day when we got to Edmonds and started to see a bright orange Noctiluca bloom. It was huge! It persisted all the way to South East Passage. It was the most extensive bloom I have ever seen. Every direction you looked, there it was. It’s as if Puget Sound was on fire!

“The size of this bloom made me wonder … Why is it happening in the Main Basin and not in South Sound? Why is it happening again? Why don’t we know more about its appearance and ferocious appetite for phytoplankton? Could it be that our imprint on Puget Sound is artfully surfacing to remind us of our daily connection to the Sound? Could these large blooms be a clue of a shift in the food chain?”

The report provides all kinds of good information, which I will review more carefully when I get the chance. General observations include red-brown blooms in Port Townsend Bay, Discovery Bay and Bellingham Bay. Large mats of accumulated plankton were seen in Samish Bay. Clusters of jellyfish were spotted in Budd, Totten and Eld Inlets, all in South Puget Sound.

References were made to a previous Noctiluca bloom, which we discussed in Water Ways May 23. Also check out the previous EOPS report.

EOPS provides aerial observations of sea surface conditions between landings, when water is sampled for a variety of conditions. Weather and general oceanographic conditions also are reported after each flight.

Plankton blooms observed throughout Puget Sound

Taken over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, this photo shows a Noctiluca bloom with the Bainbridge ferry in the background. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Ecology
Taken over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, this photo shows a Noctiluca bloom with the Bainbridge Island ferry in the background. / Photo by Christopher Krembs, Ecology

Plankton blooms reported last week from numerous locations in Puget Sound were confirmed and examined from the air Monday by Christopher Krembs and his colleagues at Eyes Over Puget Sound.

The marine monitoring group for the Department of Ecology reported notable Noctiluca blooms, as I reported in a story in Friday’s Kitsap Sun. The blooms are relatively harmless and not unexpected, given the mild weather and freshwater flows that bring nutrients into Puget Sound. They are earlier than in recent years, however.

Christopher also observed heavy sediment flows coming out of the Fraser River near Vancouver and moving south along the Canadian border. These and many other observations can be reviewed by downloading the latest report on Ecology’s website.

A brightly colored plankton called Noctiluca was observed last week along the shore of Bremerton’s Evergreen-Rotary Park. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.
A brightly colored plankton called Noctiluca was observed last week along the shore of Bremerton’s Evergreen-Rotary Park. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

Pulse of Puget Sound: starting at the bottom

I just completed the second part of a yearlong series I’m writing about the Puget Sound ecosystem and the 21 “vital signs” indicators chosen by the Puget Sound Partnership to measure the health of the sound.

This second part, published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, consists of stories about the food web, including plankton and eelgrass; forage fish, including herring; and bulkheads, which are generally considered a threat to the nearshore ecosystem.

I was trying to cover the lower half of the food web, to build a foundation for the other parts to come.

Phyto

I talked to a lot of experts on these issues and ended up writing one of the largest story packages I’ve ever written. Still, I barely touched the surface of these topics. I guess I’ll have to return later to dig a little deeper.

Scientists often say, the more they know, the more they realize what little they know, or something like that. I’ve always tried to help people understand the complexities of environmental science, but there are no simple answers.

That’s why the Puget Sound Partnership is an important bridge between policymakers and scientists. We have enough tools to know what should be done to save Puget Sound, but how do we know what projects should come before others? What can we afford to do? And how do we measure success or failure? Those are the questions challenging the partnership at the moment.

Zoo

I would like to thank all the researchers willing to give their time to this project as well as Kitsap Sun staffers who helped crunch the numbers and produce the graphics for the story package, as well as the editors who offered ideas along the way.

The overall series is called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.”
The second part is pulled together on a webpage called “Food web’s base”
Stories in the second part are:
Environment’s health starts at the bottom
The foundation of all life in Puget Sound
Herring, other forage fish, at risk
Eelgrass is both food and shelter
Shoreline armoring threatens base of the food web

Sinclair Inlet last August was awash in colorful plankton. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound
Sinclair Inlet last August was awash in colorful plankton. This photo was taken over Port Orchard, looking toward Gorst.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

Watching the decline of oxygen in Hood Canal

Southern Hood Canal is back to its dirty tricks again, as dissolved oxygen concentrations have dropped to dangerous levels even at the surface. Numerous researchers are watching to see how these conditions play out.

A giant Pacific octopus, which should be hiding, clings to a rock wall Saturday at Sund Rocks Marine Preserve.
Photo by Pat Lynch

The mechanism that causes the oxygen to decline is a little complicated, but it’s pretty well understood. It involves nitrogen, sunlight, plankton, heavy sea water and south winds. See the story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun for a brief explanation, or check out a story from April 12, when I described findings from a scientific panel about the sources of nitrogen in the canal.

The graph below shows the oxygen levels at three depths near Hoodsport. As you can see from the blue line, oxygen levels near the surface declined rapidly over the past five days, a period when winds blew out of the south. Levels below 2.5 milligrams per liter are considered highly stressful for sea life.

At Hoodsport, oxygen levels rose at the 10-foot mark starting about midday yesterday. They declined again this morning, starting after midnight. Being close to the surface, oxygen levels in these waters are greatly influenced by winds and waves.

Waters at 66 feet deep stayed low in oxygen but fairly stable, as shown by the green line. Fish tend to swim into shallow waters to avoid those low-oxygen levels. A huge mass of low-oxygen water lies in this mid-range area.

Meanwhile, the low-oxygen waters in the middle layers are being pushed upward by heavy seawater coming in from the ocean. That deep ocean water contains more oxygen than the layer above it, as shown by the red line.

To follow these changes in close to real time, go to the Nanoos website and click on “Click here to view all assets” then on “regions” in the left column and “Puget Sound.” You can get information from most of these buoys. Hoodsport is the closest to the action in southern Hood Canal.

How do we address Hood Canal’s oxygen deficit?

Five years ago, a lot of people were wondering why fish were dying more often in southern Hood Canal during the fall.

Researchers knew that Hood Canal was sensitive to nitrogen. In other words, when nitrogen was introduced to the canal during summer months, nearly all of it was taken up by plankton, which grew into large blooms. When the plankton died, they sank to the bottom, where bacterial decay sucked up the available oxygen.

Beyond that, the questions were numerous: What were the most critical sources of nitrogen affecting the low-oxygen problem? What role does weather and water circulation play? And what can humans do to help the problem — or at least keep it from getting worse.

After a five-year, $4-million study, these questions can be answered with some certainty, as I point out in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun. Now it is time for researchers to convey this information to political leaders and the public, as the Hood Canal Coordinating Council prepares a plan of action.

Scott Brewer, executive director of the HCCC, told me that the eventual plan is likely to include a suite of actions to address nitrogen inputs to the canal, particularly from human sources.
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