SEATTLE (AP) — A lawsuit that accuses the federal Environmental Protection Agency from failing to protect Washington and Oregon oysters from ocean acidification is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in Seattle.
The agency is being sued by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that works to protect endangered species and habitat.
The center is challenging an EPA decision three years ago that said Washington and Oregon sea water meets water-quality standards meant to protect marine life.
PORT ANGELES, Wash. (AP) — The disease wreaking havoc on wild sea star populations on the West Coast has struck captive collections on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
The Peninsula Daily News reports Monday that sea stars at Port Townsend’s Marine Life Center and Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles have died of the disease, known as sea star wasting.
In Port Townsend, 12 ochre stars have died, while the illness eliminated a species from the tanks in Port Angeles. Both centers pipe in ocean water for their tanks. Experts believe the disease is infectious and might be caused by bacteria or a virus.
Caretakers at the Olympic Peninsula’s marine science centers don’t intend to replace sea stars until they feel more confident they can keep them alive. They also want to avoid taking breeding adults that might be needed to replenish wild colonies.
By John Metcalfe, Cross-posted from CityLab, Source: Grist
It’s not a good time to be living in the ocean. Aside from oil spills and the scourge of plastics pollution, the seas are becoming ever more acidic due to humanity’s CO2 flooding the atmosphere. The altered PH of the water makes for a bevy of problems, from making fish act in really weirdways to dissolving the shells of creatures critical to the marine food chain.
But a group of scientists from the University of Vermont and elsewhere think the ocean’s future health has one thing going for it: the restoration of whale populations. They believe that having more whales in the water creates a more stable marine environment, partly through something called a “whale pump” — a polite term for how these majestic animals defecate.
Commercial hunting of great whales, meaning the baleen and sperm variety, led to a decline in their numbers as high as 66 percent to 90 percent, the scientists write in a new study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. This mammalian decimation “likely altered the structure and function of the oceans,” says lead author Joe Roman, “but recovery is possible and in many cases is already under way.”
The researchers — who are whale biologists — present a couple of arguments for how these animals help secure the climate-threatened ocean. The first is their bathroom behavior: After feeding on krill in the briny deep, whales head back to the surface to take massive No. 2s. You can see the “pumping” process in action amid this group of sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka:
You have to feel for the person who took that photo. But these “flocculent fecal plumes” happen to be laden with nutrients and are widely consumed by plankton, which in turn takes away carbon from the atmosphere when they photosynthesize, die, and wind up on the ocean floor. A previous study of the Southern Ocean, to cite just one example, indicated that sperm-whale defecation might remove hundreds of thousands of tons of atmospheric carbon each year by enhancing such plankton growth. Thus, these large whales “may help to buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses” like warmer temperatures and acidification, the researchers claim.
The other nice thing whales do for the climate is eat tons of food and then die. In life, they are fantastic predators. But in death, their swollen bodies are huge sarcophagi for carbon. When the Grim Reaper comes calling, whales sink and sequester lots and lots of carbon at the bottom of the sea, like this dearly departed fellow:
While there’s no exact measurement of how these “whale falls” impact global carbon sequestration — and some argue it can’t have that big of an effect — Roman thinks it’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about protecting these vulnerable creatures. As he told an Alaskan news station last year, “This may be a way of mitigating climate change, if we can restore whale populations throughout the world.”
25 years ago today the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, Calif., ran aground in Prince William Sound.
11 million gallons of oil spilled out, polluting 1,300 miles of Alaska’s coastline.
At the time it was the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Gary Shigenaka and Alan Mearns responded to the Exxon Valdez, and they’ve been studying oil spills ever since. They’re scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.
They told EarthFix’s Ashley Ahearn about their experience responding to the Exxon Valdez all those years ago.
Alan Mearns: Some places we’d go ashore and you’d see starfish that looked like they were sick, they were just kind of drifting around in the surf. And you could smell the oil too, in the places where there was plenty of it. It smelled like benzene, like you’re pumping gas at the gas station and you sniff that little bit of benzene as you pull the hose out of your car.
EarthFix: Gary, how were orcas impacted by the spill?
Gary Shigenaka: Two groups that frequent Prince William Sound crashed immediately after the spill. So since the time of the oil spill those populations have continued to be monitored and we can follow the trends and for the AB pod — the resident pod – there’s been a slow recovery. For the AT1 group, which is the transient pod, it’s been declining ever since the spill and the orca specialist for Prince William Sound, Dr. Craig Matkin, has predicted that that particular group is going to go extinct. It continues to decline with time. So it’s an unfortunate longterm legacy from the spill.
EarthFix: Some people thought the orcas would swim away, would avoid the oil spill itself, but that wasn’t actually the case, was it?
Shigenaka: What we all thought was that orcas are so smart. They will simply avoid the oiled waters. But we’ve got very good photographic evidence that shows that indeed they did not.
One photograph, an aerial photograph, shows orcas cutting through a slick and you can see where they’ve come to the surface right through the oil. There’s another shot of a pod of orcas right at the stern of the Exxon Valdez, right at the tanker.
EarthFix: What creatures were the most impacted or most harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill?
Mearns: Oh, birds. We’re talking about 200 to 300,000 I think, Gary.
Mearns: Seabirds, mainly seabirds and some shorebirds. And of course that was the big thing you’d see in the news almost every day: pictures of an oiled bird, somebody picking it up, taking it to a wildlife rehabilitation station where they’d clean them and then hold them until they could be released.
Birds killed as a result of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill. Credit: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
EarthFix: SO for people who weren’t alive, weren’t reading the paper when the Exxon Valdez spill happened, what were those animals going through? What happens to a bird when it interacts with an oil slick?
Mearns: Well, first of all, even though it’s in the spring and summer it’s still cold up there. If it’s not killed by being smothered by gobs and gobs of oil, if it’s a little bit of oil, it will succumb eventually to things like pneumonia-type diseases and things like that, so it suddenly causes birds that had good insulation not to have insulation and start suffering the effects of cold conditions.
Shigenaka: And the same holds true for another of the iconic wildlife species in Prince William Sound: the sea otters. They insulate themselves with that nice thick fur pelt and they are affected in the same way by oil disrupting their ability to insulate themselves during a spill.
EarthFix: 25 years later, how is Prince William Sound? What species have recovered, how does the place look?
Mearns: Well, 14 or 15 species or resource values have recovered. The recovery started a few years after the spill with things like bald eagles. A number of them were killed off but their population rebounded. The most recent recovery was just announced was of the sea otters that we were just talking about. So between 1991-92 when we started seeing reports of recovery of a few bird species and now we’ve had about 14 or 15 species recover but there’s still some others that haven’t yet.
EarthFix: Which ones are you most concerned about, Alan, or scientists are following most closely with concern?
Mearns: The orcas are really the ones we’re most concerned about now.
EarthFix: Is the oil gone?
Mearns: No. There are still traces of oil in the shorelines. When you go out at low tide and go into some of these back bay areas with gravel and sand overlying bedrock and dig down maybe a foot sometimes you’ll hit spots with oil that is still actually fairly fresh. We’ve encountered that at a few sites that we’ve monitored over the past 25 years.
Shigenaka: That’s been one of the 25-year surprises for us is that there are pockets of relatively fresh oil remaining both in Prince William Sound and along the coast of the Alaska Peninsula and that’s something that I don’t think any of us expected 25 years later.
EarthFix: What did this spill mean for your careers? You guys were both young bucks when this happened. And now, 25 years later, when you look back, what did it mean, the Exxon Valdez?
Shigenaka: I think overall, just the notion that we have a responsibility, both as responders and as scientists to try to communicate what we do and what we know in a way that’s understandable to the people who are affected.
EarthFix: There is more oil moving through this region now – more oil coming from the tar sands of Alberta and coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to refineries here in Washington state. If I talk to you guys 25 years from now, what do you hope we’re talking about?
Mearns: One thing that I worry about and I think Gary has some other things that he worries about is a lot of this new oil is going to be going through the Aleutian Islands, the great circle route, more and more tankers leaving here or in Canada and heading across. And in the Aleutian Islands, we thought Prince William Sound was remote, well the Aleutian Islands are even more remote. Getting equipment there, getting staff, we’ve had a few experiences with spills. I guess I’m concerned that there will be more spills in that region from this increased traffic out there.
EarthFix: Or elsewhere.
Shigenaka: 25 years from now I’m hoping that we have a much better handle on how these novel new oils like the tar sands oil and the Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, how they behave in the environment and what their potential impacts are to exposed organisms because frankly right now we don’t really know how the stuff behaves, both types of oil, once it gets loose in the environment and we’re only beginning to understand what potential impacts there might be for the exposed communities.
Gary Shigenaka and Alan Mearns are scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. They responded to the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years ago.
MUKILTEO, Wash. — Near the ferry docks on Puget Sound, a group of scientists and volunteer divers shimmy into suits and double-check their air tanks.
They move with the urgency of a group on a mission. And they are. They’re trying to solve a marine mystery.
“We need to collect sick ones as well as individuals that appear healthy,” Ben Miner tells the divers as they head into the water.
Miner is a biology professor at Western Washington University. He studies how environmental changes affect marine life. He’s conducting experiments in hopes of figuring out how and why starfish — or sea stars, as scientists prefer to call the echinoderms — are wasting away by the tens of thousands up and down North America’s Pacific shores.
Watch the video report:
Scientists first started noticing sick and dying sea stars last summer at a place called Starfish Point on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Then reports came from the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, where diver biologists discovered sea stars in Vancouver Harbour and Howe Sound dying by the thousands.
It’s been coined “sea star wasting syndrome” because of how quickly the stars deteriorate. Reports have since surfaced from Alaska to as far south as San Diego, raising questions of whether this die-off is an indicator of a larger problem.
“It certainly suggests that those ecosystems are not healthy,” Miner said. “To have diseases that can affect that many species, that widespread is, I think is just scary.”
At first only a certain subtidal species, Pycnopodia helianthoides, also known as the sunflower star, seemed to be affected. Within a day or two of showing symptoms, the fat, multi-armed stars melted into piles of mush.
Then it hit another species, Pisaster ochraceus, or the common, intertidal ochre star. Then another. In all, about a dozen species of sea stars are dying along the West Coast. Sea star wasting has also been reported at sites off the coast of Rhode Island and North Carolina. But researchers say until they’ve identified the cause of the West Coast die-offs, they can’t confirm any connection between these outbreaks.
Scene From A Horror Film
Scuba diver Laura James was one of the first to notice and alert scientists when the morning sun star, Solaster dawsoni, and the striped sun star, Solaster stimpsoni, began washing up on the shores of Puget Sound near her home in West Seattle.
“I thought, ‘This is just getting a little too close for comfort, I need to go see what’s going on. And I need to document it,’” said James, an underwater videographer.
Laura James dives to film starfish die-offs in Seattle. Credit: Katie Campbell
“There were just bodies everywhere,” James said. “There were just splats. It looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.”
She returned the site weekly, tracking the body count. At first, young stars seemed to be hanging on, a sign of hope that the next generation might be spared, but then even the smallest succumbed.
James has been diving in Puget Sound for more than two decades and says she’s never seen anything like it.
“People always ask me, ‘Do you see any big difference between now and when you started?’” she said. “I’ve seen some subtle differences, but this is the change of my lifetime.”
Reports from recreational divers like James have made it possible for scientists to track the ebb and flow of the syndrome. That’s what led Miner and his dive team to Mukilteo — a place where sea stars showing initial symptoms could be gathered.
“It turns out that you just need a lot of people out looking to be able to detect the spread,” Miner said.
Miner’s team surfaced, laden with 20 giant orange sunflower stars. They gathered stars that appeared healthy and others that had lesions and weren’t acting normal -— unnaturally twisting their arms into knots.
Miner trucked the stars to an aquarium-filled lab and placed one sickly star in with one healthy looking star. He also set up tanks containing only healthy-looking stars for comparison.
Then he watched to see what would happen.
Two sea stars share a tank, one healthy looking and one dying. Credit: Katie Campbell
Within a few hours, the sick stars started ripping themselves apart. The arms crawled in opposite directions tearing away from the body. While starfish have the ability to lose their arms as a form of defense, these starfish were too sick to regenerate their arms. Their innards spilled out and they died within 24 hours.
As for the healthy looking stars, Miner said they didn’t show symptoms anymore rapidly by being in the same tank with sickly stars.
A few weeks later divers returned to Mukilteo to find that most of the sea stars there have died. Miner concluded that all of the stars his team had collected were likely already infected just experiencing varying stages of illness. His team has since continued other infectiousness experiments collecting stars from other areas of Puget Sound where the disease hadn’t yet surfaced.
One such place was San Juan Island, part of an archipelago in the marine waters of Washington and British Columbia.
An Opportunity For Science
“We’re holding steady here and we’re not sure why,” said Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist from Cornell University who has studied marine diseases for 20 years. She teaches an infectious marine disease course at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island and was at the labs when the disease broke.
Harvell immediately recognized the die-offs as an important opportunity for science. Marine organisms are often plagued by disease outbreaks, she explained, but seldom are scientists able to identify the exact cause.
“We have a problem of surveillance for disease in the ocean because they’re out of sight and out of mind,” Harvell said.
For the past few months, Harvell has been coordinating a network of scientists on both coasts who received rapid response funding from the National Science Foundation to investigate the die-offs. The team has established a website and map run by Pete Raimondi from the University of California Santa Cruz. It’s one of the fastest-ever mobilizations of research around a marine epidemic.
“This is an opportunity for understanding more about the transmission and rates of disease in the ocean, so it’s important that we gather the right kinds of data,” Harvell said.
In her lab, Harvell anesthetizes a healthy sea star before cutting off one of its arms and slipping it into a sterile bag. She’s sending samples to Cornell where her colleague Ian Hewson, a microbial biologist, will compare them with samples of sick sea stars from along the West Coast.
Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing and metagenomics, Hewson is analyzing the samples for viruses as well as bacteria and other protozoa in order to pinpoint the infectious agent among countless possibilities.
“It’s like the matrix,” Hewson said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not identifying something that’s associated with the disease but not the cause.”
Ben Miner collects arms of dying starfish for lab analysis. Credit: Laura James
Ruling Out Possible Culprits
In the search for what’s causing this sea star die-off, it’s important for scientists to rule things out. Some have suggested that these die-offs could be linked to low oxygen levels in the water and environmental toxins entering the water through local runoff. Yet this seems unlikely, they say, because these conditions would normally impact a wider array of animals, not just sea stars.
Others have pointed out that marine die-offs in the past have been linked to larger environmental factors like climate change and ocean acidification. Warming waters and changing pH levels can weaken the immune systems of marine organisms including sea stars, making them more susceptible to infection.
Some have asked whether radiation or tsunami debris associated with the Fukushima disaster could be behind this die-off. But scientists now see Fukushima as an unlikely culprit because the die-offs are patchy, popping up in certain places like Seattle and Santa Barbara and not in others, such as coastal Oregon, where wasting has only been reported at one location.
Others have wondered if a pathogen from the other side of the world may have hitched a ride in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Scientists say this fits with the fact that many of the hot spots have appeared along major shipping routes. However, the starfish in quiet Monterey Bay, Calif. have been hit hard, whereas San Francisco’s starfish are holding strong.
But at this point, there’s no evidence to entirely confirm or entirely rule out these hypotheses.
A Sea Without Stars
Sea stars are voracious predators, like lions on the seafloor. They gobble up mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, crab and even other starfish. That’s why they’re called a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem, shaping the biodiversity of the seascape.
“These are ecologically important species,” Harvell said. “To remove them changes the entire dynamics of the marine ecosystem. When you lose this many sea stars it will certainly change the seascape underneath our waters.”
Because the die-offs are patchy, scientists aren’t concerned that sea stars will be wiped out entirely. But there’s no end in sight and the disease continues to spread.
“We may still be at the very early stages of this. We don’t really know,” Harvell said. “But it’s as important as ever right now, that we’re monitoring to know where the disease hasn’t been yet and when it first hits.”
New experiments in Washington state started this week to test possible infectious agents. The network of scientists collaborating on this project hope to make an announcement in a few months.
The Skokomish Tribe has solid data showing how salmon are using the Skokomish Tidelands after a year of monitoring the 400-acre restored estuary.
While the tribe monitors the estuary year round, the first full year of sampling (December 2011 to November 2012) showed 20 fish species, including chinook, chum and coho salmon, using both the large and small tidal channels in the restored areas of the estuary.
Prior to 2006, the estuaries had been filled with fish-blocking culverts, dikes and roads for 70 years, preventing development of good fish habitat. Restoration started in 2007, which included removing man-made structures and opening historic tidal channels that allow juvenile fish to find places to feed and hide while heading out to the ocean.
“Chinook were found in 90 percent of the channels and chum were found in 100 percent of them,” said Matt Kowalski, the tribe’s steelhead biologist. “This proves that salmon have access to and are utilizing the restoration sites.”
All 20 different species were captured in large channels, while only nine different species were captured in small channels and were mostly salmon, stickleback and sculpins, he said.
“Some of the small channels are old drainage ditches that had limited fish access and others are completely newly formed channels from the restoration,” Kowalski said. “Over time, a more complex system of small channels will form and provide more and higher quality habitat for fish.”
In addition to fish monitoring, restoration work will continue this summer with more dike and culvert removal, connecting the restored 400-acre estuary to 600 acres of forested wetlands.