Monday, September 08, 2014

James Nestor's fantastic new book "Deep" reviewed

James Nestor’s new book “Deep” is a treat.  I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end, and although I wanted to rush through, I forced myself to put it down because I wanted to think about what I was reading.  I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the ocean or human performance. 

I was surprised at how much I learned, even though I’m a marine scientist with a Ph.D. and a freediver.  I enjoyed the stories of freediving with amazing people doing interesting things underwater, and it was fun to go through Nestor’s personal challenges as he tried to learn to freedive.  Throughout, Nestor manages to convey what it feels like to do ocean research (lots of waiting and lost gear), and his stories took me out to sea. 

The stories of renegade science were new to me, and I enjoyed reading about research outside the strictures of academia.  There is much to learn in the ocean, and Nestor found some unique people that are worth reading about. 

This is easily one of the top ocean books I’ve ever read, and I’ll be keeping it on my shelf to read again sometime.   

Friday, August 01, 2014

The jellyfish are coming

Kiss your salmon goodbye.  Jellyfish are now 86% of the life in Puget Sound, a sign of things gone badly wrong.  Nutrient soup from your poop, Noctiluca blooms (red-orange streaks in the water) and the fish start disappearing.

Note:  proper scientific caution dictates weaselly caution words like perhaps and maybe should be in this post, so consider them to be here.

(See p. 27 of link for the 86% finding)

Puget Sound in trouble?

I just saw a very scary presentation.  Scary, that is, for oceanography wonks.

It looks like Puget Sound is changing in ways that people won't like.  Fewer fish, lower oxygen, more jellyfish.  Thanks to nutrients from sewage treatment plants and some surprising food web changes.

You'll know you're seeing it happen if the waters light up, bioluminescence from Noctiluca blooms, as in the funky YouTube video of waving a stick in water at night.  I know I do this all the time, don't you?

If you're interested in some hard-core oceanography that explains the hypothesis, check out this presentation.  Wow, I wondered why I've been seeing so many big jellyfish in the Sound on my twice-daily sampling cruises (ferry commutes).

For now, I'm going to go cry in my beer over the lost fish of Puget Sound.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ocean fertilization experiment reviewed

Remember the rogue scientists who sprinkled iron in the Pacific Ocean off Canada?  Did it work?

Andy Revkin reviews the evidence and comments on the significance of the results.  The iron made a plankton bloom, but the experiment was too small to be significant beyond that.  No big impact on CO2 or salmon.

One thing's for sure, this subject isn't going away.  Ocean engineering and climate engineering will become increasingly topical and controversial if we fail to fix our CO2 problem by switching to clean energy.

By the way, I'm reading an interesting new book on rogue ocean scientists, it's a fascinating subject.  More later...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Zombie orcas in Washington

Seattle's orcas are poisoned by PCBs and other toxic chemicals, and they're among the most toxic marine mammals in the world.  Here in "nice" Seattle, we're not-so-nice to our neighbors, dumping PCBs and other toxic chemicals into their home.  

Efforts are underway to stop the poisons, but some say we should go ahead and poison the sound because it's too costly to stop.  It's wrong to try to save jobs by poisoning our neighbors, and we have to stop.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Another Commission calls for ocean conservation

Ho-hum, forgive me for being bored.  Another August Panel has said our oceans need conservation action.  But this one is different, this one will really matter.

Actually, I'm not this cynical.  But I might be.

Here's the news:
The Global Ocean Commission has put forward a report on the declining health of the planet’s high seas, the 64 per cent of the ocean surface that isn’t under the control and protection of a national government. The commission is a combination of public and private sector figures, including former heads of state and ministers as well as business people, supported by scientific and economic advisors working on ways to reverse the degradation of the ocean and address the failures of high seas governance. Their report sets out five main problems, from dramatic over-fishing to rising pollution, and a set of recommendations for reversing the decline.
Glad that's taken care of, now it's time for me to go swimming.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Barnacle that eats sharks

Parasites stir mixed emotions, they're biologically interesting but often gruesome.  This one eats sharks, but only a little bit at a time.

Here's an unusual parasitic barnacle that attaches to sharks and makes a living using an unusual root-like organ that penetrates the sharks flesh and absorbs food from the shark's body fluids.

This barnacle seems more exciting and scary than the mild-mannered little fortresses that cling to rocks and pilings and filter plankton for food.

Friday, June 20, 2014

US Congress passes oceans health bill!

Believe it or not, the US Congress acted in a bipartisan fashion to solve a problem.  The Harmful Algal Blooms bill passed, with bipartisan support.  President Obama is expected to sign the bill.  The bill bolsters algae bloom research and control in freshwater and ocean waters.

According to Ocean Champions President David Wilmot, the bill is a

significant step forward in recognizing and addressing the growing problem of toxic and harmful algal blooms and hypoxia including dead zones; a commitment amplified by the bipartisan nature of the support.  “Not only is this bill a strong step in the right direction, we intend to continue working with all of our champions to achieve even more for the oceans.” 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Underwater fireworks

Amazing video of schools of fish showing off their ability to move as a group.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Feeding the world with aquaculture

Aquaculture explained as a modern food source.  This is a mostly fair and balanced article, although a bit biased in favor of western perspectives.  Asia leads the world and Asian innovations are mentioned mostly in passing.  

The world can benefit from aquaculture and this article will help get the word out about what's possible.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

Drunk fish turn into leaders

Remember following bold (drunk) friends when you were in college?  Now we know it wasn't your fault, the same thing happens to fish so it's probably hard-wired into your brain.

A new study found that drunk fish swam faster and more erratically, and sober fish followed them.  It is like [that the fish's drunk behavior] is perceived as a boldness trait, thus imparting a high social status,” lead researcher Maurizio Porfiri, an associate professor at New York University Polytechnic Institute of Engineering, told Discover Magazine.
And I thought people followed me just because I was such a natural leader.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Scary trout that eat big things

You probably don't think trout are scary, but if you were just a bit smaller, had fur, and frequented Silver Creek in Southern Idaho you'd be worried.  Here's a great fish story that turned out to be true, huge brown trout that eat mammals--montane voles to be precise.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My (mostly) excellent train ride

For a short family holiday, I rode Amtrak from Seattle to Portland and back the weekend of May 10-11.  As we were leaving Seattle, I pointed out a very long oil train to my 9 year old son, and told him about recent accidents elsewhere.  Moving on down the tracks, my son soon exclaimed loudly “look dad, there’s another exploding death train,” using my not very polite term.  He repeated that phrase each time he saw an oil train, enjoying it as only a young boy could. 

By the time we completed our round trip, I believe we saw 8 or 9 long oil trains and several other trains with some cars that might have contained oil.  Sometimes I could not read the safety placards to be sure they were oil trains. 

I was struck by the number of oil trains we saw, and by the scary thundering feeling of passing an oil train on an adjacent track going the opposite direction, at a relative speed of what seemed like more than 100mph.  All along the route we saw our vulnerability to accidents, waterways waiting to be polluted by a spill, and people and houses near the tracks at severe risk in the case of an explosion or fire.  

This trip made exploding death trains into a very tangible risk, instead of the more abstract risk I felt after reading about oil trains and accidents.  I recommend a train trip to anyone that spends any time thinking about oil, safety and our environment.  You may find, as I did, that the risks suddenly feel more personal. 

Catfish that catch birds on the beach

Called freshwater killer whales, huge catfish have learned to catch and eat birds.  In southwestern France, pigeons bathing on beaches are in for a nasty surprise.  Big catfish lurking just offshore, waiting for a bird to go just a bit too far into the water.

This is reminiscent of killer whales lunging onto beaches in Patagonia to catch sea lions.

Check out this amazing video to see the catfish in action.  

Hat tip: Not Exactly Rocket Science

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Maggot meal-turning compost into fish

A great solution to food waste, here's how to turn compost into excellent food for farmed fish.  The trick is maggots, feeding the compost to fly larvae and then feeding the maggots to fish.  May not sound yummy, but insects are a natural food source for many freshwater fish.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Copper River salmon frenzy

What an amazing fish party, Copper River sockeye salmon were on sale in my local market on Friday at $34.99 per pound.  The next display was wild troll-caught Chinook on special at $14.99 per pound.  Wild chinook for less than half the price of Copper River sockeye?  Wow.  I had that chinook on Wednesday and it was really good.  I'm surprised, and I would choose the chinook over the Copper River sockeye if the choice was based on taste.

Buying the first Copper River salmon of the year is not only about taste, however.  Good marketing has  created the Copper River frenzy as a happy celebration of a season and a type of eating.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Restoration can't overcome loss of natural shoreline habitats

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland
Shoreline restoration in Puget Sound is failing to keep up with our ongoing development of shorelines.  Despite our best efforts at restoration, we're losing habitat because we won't stop doing the damage.  

I often wonder whether our visible restoration projects are actually solving the problem.  It's pretty clear the answer is no if we develop more shorelines than we restore.  This study only looked at part of Puget Sound, but I doubt the answer is much different elsewhere.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Is your Copper River salmon really wild?

It's Copper River salmon time again, and everyone here in Seattle is looking forward to some lovely fresh salmon.  I'll be waiting a couple of weeks until prices come down, the first shipments tend to be expensive.

Is Copper River salmon worth the high price?  There are a lot of good salmon out there, and I think Copper River fish are great, but so are a lot of other fish that don't have the same hype or high prices.

Another interesting issue is the wild origins of Copper River salmon.  Alaska's industry fiercely protects the image of Alaska's salmon, saying they're all wild all the time.  Nevertheless, somewhere around 20% of Copper River sockeye were not spawned naturally, in a lake or stream.  That's right, around 20% of Copper River salmon were spawned by people in a fish hatchery.  The pre-season forecast  for 2014 from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts that 18% of this year's Copper River sockeye will be from hatcheries.  Also, documents from an ecolabel review show that in 2010, the last year reported, 26% of Copper River sockeye were from hatcheries (page 37 of linked document).

"wild" fish spawning?
Is there anything wrong with Alaska's hatchery fish?  They're good to eat, but they can cause problems, especially when they interbreed with wild fish.  Alaskans say their hatchery fish are well managed, but the independent Marine Stewardship Council review found insufficient information to reliably support that claim.  The MSC is requiring better information to establish that hatchery fish aren't harming wild fish within 4 years as a condition of keeping the ecolabel (see page 11).  By the way, this is an issue that contributed to the split between the Alaska seafood industry and the Marine Stewardship Council.
"wild" fish spawning?

The debate around wild or not is really a question of definition.  Alaskans are proud of their salmon "ranching" system, which is what they call the hatchery system.  So long as the fish are caught out of the ocean or a river, they're defined as "wild."  The Alaska Sea Grant says that Alaska's salmon ranching is part of Alaska's aquaculture industry.  And the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation produces "hatchery-born wild salmon" from their salmon ranching operations.  Sounds like a bit of a word tangle to me.  The reason for all of this linguistic muddle, of course, is to help Alaska salmon compete with farmed salmon raised in net pens until they're eating size.

Decide for yourself.  Is a fish spawned by people like in these pictures a "wild" fish? 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Swimming with huge snakes

My swim around Bainbridge Island was an adventure, but here's a whole new twist--swimming with huge scary snakes.

Scientists say that anacondas don't eat people, but I'm not sure that the deepest part of my brain would be satisfied with that, a giant snake underwater would still feel a bit creepy.

Swiss diver Franco Bonfi went to Mato Grosso in Brazil to find, swim with, and photograph giant anacondas.  The resulting images are something to see.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Herring fart to communicate

Tiny bubbles that stream from their anuses in the dark may allow herring to keep in tight schools when they can't see.  Amusing, unlike human farts, herring farts seem to bring the fish closer together.

Herring farts are not gut gas, rather they come from air gulped at the surface and stored in their swim bladder (air-containing organ used to control buoyancy).

Friday, May 09, 2014

Is your Maine lobster truly wild?

Fishermen are feeding young lobsters in Maine, turning the wild lobster fishery into something less that fully wild.  The way this works is that lobsters enter traps, eat the bait, and then leave (studies show that 90% of lobsters escape after entering traps).  Scientists have found that lobsters get enough food from lobster traps to enhance their growth rate.  Sounds like a cross between fishing and farming to me, something like a lobster feedlot.

Lobstermen know about this, and don't try to hide it.   
"A lot of lobstermen feel that traps are really feeding stations," says Cobb. New England's lobster fishery is in good health - perhaps, says Cobb, because of all the bait that fishermen put out. 

Maine lobsters are great, I can vouch for that.  I wonder, does anyone advertise Maine lobsters as farmed?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Scary ocean predator you've never heard of..

Watch this big lingcod get caught because it won't let go of it's prey.  Vicious? Stubborn? Not very clever?  Regardless, I'm glad I'm not a fish in lingcod country.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Lingcod tries to eat salmon

Fascinating underwater video, can the salmon escape the lingcod's trap-like jaws?

Hat tip: Salish Sea News and Weather

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Plants vs. Seazombies in Seattle

Good news, plants defeat seazombies in Seattle.  Urban streams breed seazombies when fall rains wash a chemical stew into creeks where salmon are getting ready to spawn.  Some salmon are killed directly, but what’s worse is that some transform into seazombies—poisoned undead fish that come out of streams to eat your brain. 

Fortunately, scientists have discovered that plants can stop the seazombie plague.  Biofiltration by a soil/plant mixture cleans the toxic stew so it’s harmless, protecting salmon.  

Quick, let’s get more plants working in our city neighborhoods before seazombies take over. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Seattle has a new claim to fame.  No, it's not coffee, software, airplanes, or even Macklemore.  It's seazombies.  

You can find them in "restored" salmon streams, places we've spent good money to create happy homes for fish.  After our beloved fish make it all the way back home to spawn, a flush of rain washes mysterious toxic chemicals into the water.  Some die, but some suffer a worse fate, they live on as poisoned seazombies.

Marine life in Puget Sound is contaminated with a stew of toxic chemicals.  PCB, PDBEs, PAHs, QRXDs, ABCDs, and even MX47UDPs.  

Could it be Seattle's nasty little PCB habit?  It's probably toxic chemicals, but something more sinister, not so easy to identify as PCBs.

Of course, this isn't just a problem for fish.  Runoff of toxic chemicals into lovely Puget Sound have made our orcas some of the most contaminated marine mammals on earth.  The problem is so bad that baby orcas sometimes die of contamination in their first year.

What does this mean for people?  We eat the same contaminated salmon that the orcas eat.  Uh oh.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Seattle's nasty little PCB habit

We like to blame our PCB problems on a large corporation that makes sophisticated machines or another large corporation that's known for wood products.  Since our salmon and orcas are contaminated with PCBs and these big businesses have effluent pipes, they seem like a logical target.  But when we do the right studies, we find most of the PCBs in our water come from somewhere else.

Who's the PCB villain?  Who is responsible for most of the PCBs that find their way into Puget Sound?  Us.  We are the bad guys.  From the Lake Washington study:
"Approximately 70 percent of the tPCB load to Lake Washington comes from local tributary watersheds around the lake and their stormwater runoff." 
This is not unique to the Lake Washington watershed in the Seattle area, similar results were found in studies of the Spokane River and Puget Sound in Washington, and San Francisco Bay, Chicago, and Toronto.

How do we pollute Puget Sound with PCBs?  Numerous, on-going, diffuse urban sources such as flaking paint or abraded joint caulks used in concrete surfaces and consumer products like paint and printer ink.  Thanks to the PCB loophole, we can actually buy PCB-contaminated products and we can contribute to PCB pollution through disposal of apparently-benign things like printed documents.

We're going to have to look close to home to figure out how to solve our PCB problem.  Can we give up important life-affirming substances like yellow ink with up to 50 ppm PCBs?

Friday, April 25, 2014

The PCB loophole

It's bad, it's poisoning you, and it costs you money.  When we "banned" PCBs, we left a loophole: PCBs are legal as contaminants.

Why does this matter? We're spending real money to clean up waterways like Puget Sound. But we allow PCBs at levels that matter in products like yellow paint.

Now you can probably see the toxic irony that moved me to take the picture on the left. We ask people not to dump, but the worn yellow paint is leaching PCBs into the Sound.

PCBs are hiding in plain view, and we knew that would happen
when we created the PCB loophole. But surprisingly, these contaminant PCBs are standing in the way of public health and a booming economy.  Oops.

As we try to figure out how to get PCBs out of our waterways, contaminant PCBs are emerging as a big picture political problem. Big businesses are worried, governments are trying to manage, and heavy fish-eaters like First Nations outraged by the toxic contamination of their food. This loophole that once seemed tiny is emerging as a possible driver of important public policy debates.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

PCBs in fish, WTF?

New sources of PCBs continue to plague fish.  It turns out we only "sort of" banned PCBs back in 1979.

This is the mother of all loopholes: PCBs are still allowed as a contaminant in some products.  Like paint and caulk.  Including the yellow paint in the middle of roads and the caulk used in gutters alongside streets.  These materials break down and drizzle PCBs into road runoff every time it rains.

So as we're paying $millions or even $$$billions to get PCBs out of our rivers, we're also paying public employees to spread shiny new sources of PCBs in our cities to contaminate fish and anyone who eats fish.

Silly us, we thought PCBs were banned!

Until recently, PCBs in fish were blamed on legacy contamination, the old PCBs that are still circulating in aquatic habitats since PCBs are slow to break down.  These so-called legacy PCBs are a problem, but now we know that a major source of PCBs in fish are the PCBs allowed as contaminants are leaching out of building materials and paints and these PCBs continue to flow into water bodies like Puget Sound every time it rains.  Ugh.  Time for some action.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How to tell a story

Do you want to tell a story?  If you're trying to save the world, or a piece of it, then you need to tell a story.  Fortunately, ocean scientist turned filmmaker Randy Olson can help you.'s easy.

Check out the Connection Storymaker app and get started telling stories that people will actually notice!

Oh, and there's also a Connection Storymaker book, but who reads books anymore?