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If a Tree Falls in a Forest, and No One Knows What to Call It, Does It Exist at All?

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By: Liz Clift

On a recent trip, I was back in a familiar landscape where I know a number of the names of native plants—not just trees and flowers, but grasses as well. Being able to recognize these deepened my sense of temporarily returning home, and what it means to belong to a place.

The experience also led me to consider how an ecological vocabulary changes the way we see the world. Much like having a vocabulary around estuary English, having a vocabulary around one’s local ecological environments can add depth and texture to the world. A red-capped mushroom with charming white spots is no longer just a toadstool, or just warning that it’s poisonous. It’s suddenly likely Amanita muscaria (and culinary, if properly identified and prepared. That being said, please don’t eat foraged mushrooms unless you’re very certain in the ID.). Finding a good spot for morels (Morchella spp.)is an opportunity to become acquainted with that plant community—and the conditions that cause morels to fruit. The evergreen becomes a conifer becomes western red cedar (Thuja plicata), whose boughs have been used for medicinal purposes for longer than time can tell and which may have modern applications as a broad-spectrum anti-microbial.

Environmental biologist, botanist, and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that an ecological vocabulary is more than just a base of knowledge. She argues that knowing the names of plants and animals turns them from objects into a part of our communities. She writes

“When I am in the woods with my students, teaching them the gifts of plants and how to call them by name, I try to be mindful of my language, to be bilingual between the lexicon of science and the grammar of animacy. Although they still have to learn scientific roles and Latin names, I hope I am also teaching them to know the world as a neighborhood of nonhuman residents, to know that, as ecotheologian Thomas Berry has written, ‘we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.’”

However, we’re losing nature-words, words that describe our local ecologies all the time. In 2007, the Oxford children’s dictionary removed a number of nature-based words, including acorn, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heron, mistletoe, newt, pasture, and willow (along with a number of other words).

Maybe losing the word acorn from a children’s dictionary seems insignificant. However, it’s also a way to begin to erase a rich social and ecological history. Acorns not only come from, and produce, oak (Quercus spp. and Lithocarpus spp.) trees, they are also a source of food for a variety of animals (including humans). Acorns have been used to barter and for medicine. Acorns are so iconic that they’re frequently used to represent beginnings and potential. You can probably picture one right now.

But what if I asked you about something less familiar, and less ubiquitous?

Picture, if you will, blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Botanists, plains ecologists, native plant nerds, and a handful of others can probably call it to mind with no problem. We even have a cute trick to help ourselves remember what it looks like.

Got it in your mind?

Unless you’re in a job that requires you to know plains or “decorative” grasses, the answer is probably not.

Blue grama is a type of bunchgrass, which used to grow over large swathes of the upper plains, Rocky Mountains, and midwestern North America. Now, in many places, native prairies—and the grasses that make them up—have shrunk to just a fraction of their historic range. Which, if I’m being honest, is pretty unfortunate. Blue grama has florescence that resembles “a gramma’s eyebrows.” (Now you know the trick for identifying it] and the potential for an incredibly long lifespan, which means it can help stabilize soil for years.

[Insert picture of blue grama from Stapleton?]

What if I asked you to tell me what a newt is?

Or what you call a group of herons?

Or what we call a baby swan?

Or to describe the difference between a great blue heron (Ardea herodias)and a black-capped night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)?

Or what it means if an animal is crepuscular?

Or the right way to pronounce nudibranch? Geoduck?

How are you doing with your ecological vocabulary?

My point in this isn’t to shame or provide accolades.

My point is that by losing this vocabulary, we disrupt our ability to understand the world around us and the interactions that take place. We might miss the migration of nudibranchs from deeper waters to eelgrass (Zostera marina)  beds in the Salish Sea in early summer. We don’t look for a brown lizard-like animal among the leaf litter when we’re out on a hike on a rainy day, or question why it evolved to move so slowly. We miss the opportunity to notice that a cowbird (Molothrus spp.) has replaced another bird in its nest, or to explore the relationship between the decline of sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)and the changes in collection and grazing patterns. We plant milkweed because we think it will help the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), only we plant tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)when that’s not our local variety—and as a result, potentially cause more harm to monarchs.

We say the grass is always greener on the other side, not just because things may seem better from afar—but perhaps also because we can’t tell the difference between the telltale blue-green of western wheat (Pascopyrum smithii) and the deeper green of common spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris), indicating the presence of wetter soil. From afar, perhaps it’s harder to see the places where cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) has already given the landscape a rusty hue—and up close, if we don’t know what we’re seeing, we just know that cheatgrass leaves its seeds in our pants, socks, shoes, and wedged into the soft pads of our dog’s paws.

It’s possible, however, to encourage ecological vocabulary—both in our own lives and in the lives of people around us.

We can do this by learning—and using—the names of plants, animals, fungi, rocks, and other things we encounter, and resourcing ourselves to support this learning (through the use of field guides, apps, college and popular education courses, forays, online identification groups, and more).

In doing this, we enable ourselves to begin to rebuild our relationship to the land—and with each other. We are better able to recognize our interdependence as a species—not only with other people, but with all that makes life on earth possible.

This is not a novel concept.

Director and Founder of Local Futures writes “I have seen that community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned another way is possible.” Indigenous activist and economist, Winona LaDuke has said “Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. Power is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.” Terry Tempest Williams offers “I think our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other. What we perceive as non-human, outside of us, is actually in direct relationship with us.”

With ecological vocabulary, we can begin to awaken the corners of our mind that recognize that we are part of this world, rather than architects. Wendell Berry writes “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” That is to say, we protect what we love, we’re more likely to love that which we know.

In this, a flower cannot simply be a flower and a bird cannot just be a bird. There still are plenty of flowers in the world. There still are plenty of birds. In Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.”

Make the flower Cephalanthera austiniae, phantom orchid, the only North American orchid that doesn’t produce chlorophyll and which might be dormant for 17 years. Phantom orchid is considered a mycoheterotrophic parasite. Myco meaning fungus. Hetero meaning different. Trophic referring to nutritional requirements. The phantom orchid, then, is a rare parasitic orchid that does not have a direct attachment to its host plant, but instead gets its nutrients from the host plant via a mycorrhizal network.

Make the bird Cinclus mexicanus, American dipper, North America’s only aquatic songbird—and an unassuming little grey bird at that. It catches all its food under water in swiftly flowing streams. It is a common species in parts of the country west of the Missouri River—and can provide an indicator of stream health.

The phantom orchid and American dipper are part of the United States’ Pacific Northwest ecology. We can notice their presence or absence in a forest, or along a stream, and begin to get other clues about the ecosystem. Add to these two organisms every other organism that make up a place and you might begin to decipher other clues about the health or stress of the ecosystem, about interdependence, about historical uses of a place.

Of course, this isn’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. For instance, abundant invasive species may indicate high nitrogen levels in the soil or a recent disturbance. Prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) holes suggest potential habitat for burrowing owl (Aethene cunicularia) and bullsnake (Pituophis catinefer) and are likely surrounded by clipped grasses with encroaching invasive plant species. Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) occurs between 2,950 feet in British Columbia up to 12,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevadas, and indicate the presence of Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), which these trees rely on for seed distribution.

With an ecological vocabulary, the world becomes a story, full of rich characters and relationships. We can foster these relationships not only through the tools I mention above—but through reading for pleasure. Some books (including children’s books) I’ve especially loved that focus on fostering this connection are:

B is for Bear: A Natural Alphabet by Hannah Viano

The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane

The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb

Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean

This is, of course, far from an exhaustive list. What books should I add to my reading list? Leave us a comment on social media.

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Seagrass, Seagrass, Who Do You See?

By Liz Clift and Jessica Foley

Have you seen this on the beach lately?

Eelgrass in the Salish Sea (photo by Liz Clift)

If you live in an area with ultra low tides during the summer—the answer is likely yes. During ultra low tides, fields of seagrass, like the eelgrass (Zostera marina) pictured above, can become exposed. However, even if you don’t have ultra low tides—and many areas don’t–you may see seagrass wash up when it becomes uprooted from its substrate due to animals feeding, storms, or human activity.

What is Seagrass?

Seagrass is a general term for a variety of underwater flowering plant that belongs to one of four families (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae, and Cymodoceaceae). Seventy-two species of seagrass are known, and many superficially resemble terrestrial grasses in the Poaceae family (think Kentucky bluegrass [Poa pratensis], which you likely see in urban parks or even in your own yard). Seagrasses, importantly, are like terrestrial grasses, in that they can form roots and rhizomes, rather than having a “holdfast” or floating freely like macroalgae (“seaweed”).

Seagrasses grow in underwater meadows in estuarine or marine environments (not freshwater!) within the photic zone. Like terrestrial prairies or grasslands, seagrass meadows are diverse and productive ecosystems that provide shelter, forage, and breeding grounds for a variety of ecologically important and economically significant species. What you’ll find in fields of seagrass depends on where you live (i.e. tropical versus temperate climates), but some animals that commonly rely on this ecosystem include a variety of juvenile fish, American manatees (Tricherchus manatus),  sea turtles, dugongs (Dugong dugong), sea urchins, and crabs.

Crab in Eelgrass (Photo Credit: NOAA)

In addition to providing important habitat, seagrass offers a number of ecosystem services including:

  • Habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish;
  • Wave protection;
  • Oxygen production;
  • Coastal erosion protection; and
  • a carbon sink.

Total Sales Generated by U.S. Commercial and Recreational Fishing Industries:
U.S . Total-208 Billion Sales (Image Credit: NOAA)

In addition to helping support the $200 billion fishing industry, seagrass meadows account for more than 10% of the ocean’s ability to store carbon—per hectare it is able to store twice as much carbon dioxide as a rainforest! Meaning seagrass meadows are able to support the U.S. economy as well as mitigate climate change all at the same time.

Because seagrasses provide so many services and are experiencing global declines, communities are working to enhance and restore seagrass beds, which have been impacted or destroyed by human activities. Since so much of this work happens under water—and therefore out of sight to anyone who isn’t a diver or looking for news about seagrass conservation and restoration—I wanted to highlight a few of the projects occurring around the U.S. to restore seagrass habitat.

Chesapeake Bay

In the Chesapeake Bay, eelgrass beds are essential to maintaining the iconic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and wild oyster industries, two of the region’s most valuable fisheries. major seagrass conservation and recovery efforts, including reducing  nutrient loads and seeding seagrass have been underway. Since runoff from agriculture is a major component of nutrient pollution, state and federal agencies have  been working with farmers to incentivize better practices that has led to decreased nutrient loads in some areas.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the Chesapeake Bay on a “pollution diet,” or a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) to reduce levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Six Chesapeake Bay states, and Washington D.C. must have pollution  controls in place by 2025. Earlier this year, the EPA released a “check-up” report on the pollution diet. The partnership has fallen short of its nitrogen reduction target; however, this check-up allows the six states and D.C. to use the TMDL information to continue to strive toward the 2025 target and remain accountable.

Concurrently, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) having been activity restoring seaside bays in the Chesapeake region. The VIMS Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) Lab has effectively broadcast 60 million eelgrass seeds over 450 acres over the last 15 years. Given the enhanced water quality in the region and successful reintroduction of eelgrass seed, the species has colonized over 6,000 acres of seagrass meadows (over 10 times its originally seeded area!). This successful restoration effort is one of the largest seagrass restoration projects by size in the world.

Photo: Aerial photographs of one Chesapeake eelgrass restoration site in South Bay in 2004 (left) and 2008 (right). By 2008, the area within the polygon had become almost completely vegetated with eelgrass (Orth et al. 2010).

Salish Sea

In the Salish Sea, seagrasses provide critical habitat for herring (Clupea harengus pallasii), Dungeness crabs (Metacarcinus magister), and young salmon (all of which support many types of wildlife and are important commercially and recreationally), and six different types of seagrass exist in this area, of which eelgrass is the most widespread.

However, eelgrass (and other seagrass) growth can be hampered by algal blooms, overwater structures because these things block light, sediment loading, shoreline armoring, and vessels anchoring or mooring. Since seagrass is a vital component of this ecosystem, in 2011, an interdisciplinary taskforce developed a strategy with five overarching goals to help Washington state reach its target of expanded eelgrass habitat by 20 percent between by 2020. The goals are:

  • Conserve existing eelgrass habitats;
  • Reduce environmental stressors to support eelgrass expansion
  • Restore and enhance degraded or declining eelgrass meadows;
  • Identify research priorities; and
  • Expand outreach and education.

The Port of Bellingham, which is part of the Salish Sea has also supported eelgrass recovery efforts, including the redesign of a waterfront park to connect tideflats and eelgrass beds. This project won the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) award for best restored beach in the Northwest in 2012 and America’s best restored beach in 2009.

Sand Dollar Exoskeleton among Seagrass, Marine Park, Bellingham, WA (Photo Credit: Liz Clift)

Tampa Bay

Since the 1800s, Tampa Bay has lost approximately 80% of its seagrass coverage. Many areas of the Bay were historically affected by direct input of raw sewage from the adjacent communities. This type of nutrient pollution allowed for think mats of algae or seaweed to take over and block all the available light to the seagrasses.

Here, seagrass restoration will provide important fisheries for snook (Centropomus undecimalis), seatrout, and shrimp while also improving water quality. One of Tampa’s approaches to restoration focuses on micropropagation, which is a way to clone plants by collecting the terminal buds, surface-sterilizing them, and then growing them in test tubes with a specific nutrient medium. Once scientists can maintain a rapidly multiplying plant stock in the lab, they will be able to use these plants as a source for additional micropropagation or subculturing (dividing the plant into smaller plantlets and growing plants from these pieces).

This will allow for less disturbance of Tampa’s remaining seagrass beds and allows for more production in less time. Other seagrass restoration efforts include planting and transplanting grasses and repairing scars from anchors or propellers using sediment tubes.

Changes in Seagrass (Image Credit: Smithsonian)

In 1991, when the Tampa Bay Estuary Program was founded, local, state, and federal government set out to clean up and restore seagrasses in Tampa bay. Their goal was to reach 1950 seagrass levels of or nearly double the cover. By 2015, their goal was met and surpassed with seagrass covering over 40,000 acres. The recovery process involved research, planning, enhancing the water quality, and restoring grasses. Work and proper management is still continuing to this day to protect the Bay.

Conclusion

All of these seagrass restoration efforts—and many more that aren’t covered here—serve to improve habitat and forage for a variety of animals, protect shorelines, and trap carbon, among other functions.  And, since seagrass exists around the world—and can form meadows large enough to be seen from space, protecting and restoring seagrass anywhere will provide benefits beyond local coastlines. Seagrass restoration is also a two-fold effort where both enhancing water quality and reintroducing the plants are necessary for success.

Keep an eye on our blog for more posts about seagrasses. If you want to learn more about the ecology of seagrasses—as well as their ecosystem services, check out this link.

 

 

Unlinked Reference:

Orth, Robert & R. Marion, Scott & Moore, Kenneth & J. Wilcox, David. (2010). Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) in the Chesapeake Bay Region of Mid-Atlantic Coast of the USA: Challenges in Conservation and Restoration. Estuaries and Coasts. 33. 139-150. 10.1007/s12237-009-9234-0.

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Great Ecology to Present at 7th International Conference on Eco-Compensation and Payments for Ecosystem Services

Associate Ecologist, Marlene Tyner-Valencourt will present at the 7th International Conference on Eco-Compensation and Payments for Ecosystem Services. The conference, which is hosted by the China Eco-Compensation Policy Research Center, RKSI, Asian Development Bank, and CAEP, will occur on December 3 – 4, 2018 in Huangshan, Anhui Province in China.

Ms. Valencourt-Tyner’s talk on December 4 will be called “Mitigation Banking in the U.S.: Practice and Conditions,” and will provide a regulatory overview of natural resources protection in the U.S., a definition of ecosystem and mitigation banking, an overview of U.S. mitigation banking marketplace, key factors for mitigation banking success, and a framework for applying these concepts and practices in China. It was co-authored with Dr. Mark S. Laska, Founder and President of Great Ecology.

The lineage of this talk includes Dr. Laska’s 2016 presentation at ADB’s Green Business Forum in Manilla and continues Great Ecology’s collaborative work with the ADB to share market-based approaches, best practices, and lessons learned to the conservation discussion in Asia.

 

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Dr. Laska Presents at WHC Conference!

Mark S. Laska, Ph.D., Founder and President of Great Ecology, along with Gregory R. Biddinger, Ph.D., Managing Director and Principal Scientist at Natural Land Management, LLC presented at the Wildlife Habitat Council’s Conservation Conference 2018 earlier today. The name of their session was The Future is Green: Conservation Strategies to Achieve Success.

Dr. Biddinger discussed strategies to incorporate conservation practices throughout the life cycle of a corporate project, describing the triple bottom line benefits of this approach. Dr. Laska followed up with natural land management case studies, using examples from Great Ecology’s 17-year history as ecological consultants. His portion of the session introduced strategies to optimize the value of corporate land assets, and described Great Ecology’s process to evaluate a corporate site based on its  ecological potential, the regional ecosystem marketplace, and the regulatory framework.

If you’re at the Wildlife Habitat Council’s Conservation Conference this year, we hope you’ll stop by our table and say hello! You can also learn about Dr. Laska’s work with Tellurium Partners and Ecology Landwatch, two of Great Ecology’s sister companies.

Mark Laska, Ph.D. (left) and Dave Yozzo, Ph.D

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Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers Award

Great Ecology is thrilled to announce that we have won an Environmental Excellence award from the Colorado Association of Stormwater and Floodplain Managers (CASFM) for our work on the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program. Vice President of Technical Services, Randy Mandel, received this award on behalf of the company at the 2018 Annual CASFM Conference in Snowmass, CO.

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Great Ecology a Finalist for Three AEP Awards

The San Diego office was a finalist for three Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) San Diego Chaper awards:
  1. Outstanding Technical Report – Pond 20 Delineation Report
  2. Outstanding Innovation in Green Planning and Design – Pond 20 Prospectus
  3. Outstanding Innovation in Green Planning and Design – Constructed Treatment Wetland System at the Del Mar Fairgrounds

We are so proud of the work produced through these projects and honored to have been a finalist. Learn more about the AEP.

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Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are Key to Salish Sea Ecosystem Health

By Liz Clift

Historically, conservation groups were responsible for saving the whales. The earliest of these groups was the American Cetacean Society, which was founded in 1967. More groups focused on whale conservation, education, and research formed soon after and include the Center for Whale Research which has been performing orca surveys since 1976[1]. The Center for Whale Research has  specifically focused on the study and conservation of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW; Orcinus orca), which make the Salish Sea their home.

Image by NOAA

The SRKW made news earlier this year, when a grieving mother orca (J35 aka Tahlequah, b. 1998) carried her calf—which died half an hour after it was born—for 17 days. This mourning period is unprecedented among orcas (although a mourning period, in general, is fairly common). At the same time a young orca (J50 aka Scarlet, b. 2014 to a different mother in the J-pod) was, starving to death

The SRKW population totals only 74—a number that puts their population at risk. The death of J35/Tahlequah’s baby brought this into stark relief because no babies have been born—and survived—in any of the three pods that make up the SRKW in the three years. Stress factors attributed to the SRKW plight include: toxic pollutants, vessel noise, and lack of salmon (their primary food).

Drastic measures were taken by multiple agencies, scientists, and researchers from the US, Canada, and the Lummi Nation, who provided chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) for J50/Scarlet to eat. The team administered an antibiotic injection to J50/Scarlet and as of late August, she’d been spotted socializing with other members of her pod. As of this publication J50 is presumed dead.

SRKW are unique among orcas. They spend their life in the Salish Sea and eat primarily chinook, which has earned them the nickname “fish-eating orcas.” These whales were also heavily impacted by the marine mammal trade for marine park exhibition. Between 1965 and 1975, 13 SRKW died and 45 were delivered to marine parks around the world[2]. In addition to the hardships faced by whales in marine parks, whales were historically killed as part of the commercial whaling industry. Commercial whaling ended in 1986.

While this may (or may not) tug at your heart-strings, protecting whales means increasing the resiliency of marine ecosystems. “Whales,” as Asha de Vos states in her TED Talk Why You Should Care about Whale Poop, “are ecosystem engineers. They help maintain the stability and health of the oceans, and even provide services to human society.”

Whales help cycle nutrients from deeper in the ocean—which stimulates the growth of phytoplankton (which forms the base of all marine ecosystems), help move carbon from the surface of the water into the deeper ocean and provide a meal for up to 400 different species when they die. They’re also an apex predator, which helps keep their prey populations in check. Whales feed on a variety food ranging from plankton and krill to sharks—and it’s through this feeding (and their fecal plumes) that whales are able to sink carbon.

But even with the moratorium on commercial whale fishing, whale populations continue to remain well below their historic levels. To help our ocean ecosystems, we must continue to make steps toward helping whales. The specific steps needed to protect whales varies from species to species—and location to location—so from here, I’ll return my focus to the SRKW. The three major stressors impacting the SRKW are degraded habitats (including those of their prey species) and contaminants within those habitats, prey population, and disturbance from vessels.

Habitat Restoration & Contaminants

SRKW depend on chinook populations—but damming rivers and commercial fishing both impact chinook populations. The average adult SRKW needs to eat 18 – 25 adult chinook a day. Chinook can weigh up to 100 pounds, but average about 30 pounds as adults. And, in recent years, very large chinook are becoming rarer.

Dam removal projects, such as the Elwha dam removal, can help restore connectivity between the ocean and salmon spawning grounds—and improve overall forest and watershed health (which are linked to improved ocean health). The Columbia River and the Snake River have been identified key rivers to restore.

The waters of the Salish Sea—as well as adjacent upland areas—should also be the focus of a restoration effort with the goal of reducing the number of contaminants entering the food chain. Since the SRKW are apex predators, they consume contaminants consumed in all the lower trophic levels, through bioaccumulation. This may lead to lower rates of fertility, increased calf mortality, and other problems with the whales. In addition, these contaminants can impact populations of fish (known as forage fish) that chinook rely on, thus also reducing prey populations for the SRKW.

In addition, continuing efforts to restore seagrass in the Salish Sea is critical to improving salmon habitat. Seagrass provides habitat for juvenile fish of many species, including salmon and increases in seagrass meadows could lead to higher overall fish populations as well as Chinook populations.

Prey Populations

In addition to habitat restoration activities that can help restore overall salmon populations, as well as populations of forage fish, daily bag limits on chinook can help ensure more fish make it to their spawning grounds. Recently, some Washington restaurants made the decision to stop serving chinook for the foreseeable future, in order to support the SRKW population. Although not many restaurants are currently choosing this route, if enough do elect to stop serving chinook, it could begin to force changes on commercial fisherman.

It isn’t just human salmon catches that have raised concerns. Recently, discussions have begun anew on reducing the number of other ocean-dwelling predators that eat salmon, including harbor seals and sea lions. The thought behind this is that if these competing predators are killed, more salmon would be available for the whales. But predator-control efforts often don’t result as intended and are focused on a top-down management view (i.e. – fewer predators equals more prey instead of more prey equaling more food for predators—as thus allowing target predator populations to expand [in the case of the SRKW]).

Noise Pollution and Vessel Disturbance

Noise within the Salish Sea has been cited as another problem impacting the SRKW. The Salish Sea is a popular shipping channel, contains numerous port cities, and is traversed by ferries taking people from the mainland to the populated islands off the Washington coast, as well as whale watching and fishing boats. In 2008, regulations were put in place to require boaters to steer clear of orcas, which can help reduce noise and general disturbance from these boats. In addition, a voluntary “no-go” zone has been established at one of the SRKW forage and socialization sites.

All of these are helpful measures; however, noise from these boats can impair the orcas ability to hunt—as well as limit their ability to communicate with the rest of their pod to stay safe or find mates. In 2017, some ships participated in a voluntary slow down near one of the SRKW popular feeding grounds west of San Juan Island. The hope was that slower ships would decrease underwater noise—and hopefully have a positive impact on the whales. The preliminary analysis indicated that this experiment was a success, with underwater noise levels falling by nearly half.

In short, there’s no easy answer. But Washington state governor, Jay Inslee signed Executive Order 18-02 in March 2018 designating state agencies establish a Task Force and take other immediate action to benefit the SRKW, with a goal of developing longer term recommendations for SRKW recovery and sustainability. A full draft of the recommendations was released earlier this month and a final set of recommendations is due by November 2018. A second report, which will outline progress made, lessons learned, and unmet needs will be developed by October 1, 2019.

Steps recommended by the Task Force, along with steps already being taken by those who have dedicated their lives (or free time) to ecological restoration, improved fisheries, whale conservation, and marine science, among other fields will hopefully lead to healthier and more vibrant whale populations—as well as healthier marine ecosystems, overall.

 

[1] In this blog, I’ll use whale to refer to both baleen and toothed whales, including orcas. Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family.

[2] Free Willy provides a fictionalized glance (Keiko was not an SRKW) into what happened to whales who were captured for marine parks (Freeing Willy provides a 12 minute long look into what happened to Keiko, the whale who played Willy, after the movie was filmed)—and the movie Blackfish highlights the living conditions of whales in these marine parks.

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Vice President of Technical Services to Present at Army Corps Natural and Nature-Based Features Symposium

Vice President of Technical Services, Randy Mandel, has been invited to present the Bioengineering Manual he coauthored for the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program as well as Riparian Restoration Matrix, also developed for EWP, at the September Army Corps International Natural and Nature-Based Features Symposium at UC Santa Cruz. His presentation will occur on September 20.

US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) initiated a collaborative project to develop, publish, and promote guidelines on the development of Natural and Nature-Based Features (NNBF). NNBF support engineering functions in the context of the overall sustainability and resilience of coasts, bays, and estuaries. The workshop at which Mr. Mandel will present is part of a series of workshops that relate to USACE’s multi-agency effort to develop guidance describing how to implement, monitor, and evaluate NNBF projects.

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Climate Change and Coastal Fish Assemblages

By David J. Yozzo, PhD

Climate change is impacting the health and biological integrity of marine and estuarine waters throughout the United States, and globally.  Rising average air and water temperatures, more frequent and extreme weather events, and steadily rising sea levels are changing baseline environmental conditions, and may alter the distributions and life history patterns of marine/estuarine organisms, including fish, invertebrates, sea birds, sea turtles and marine mammals. The magnitude of these ecological changes is expected to increase in the future, with important implications for strategic, effective management of marine and coastal resources, including sustainable fisheries and swimmable waters. One especially widespread (global) indicator of the effects of climate change (specifically increased sea surface temperatures) on marine resources is the increasing magnitude of change in the distribution of marine and estuarine fish species. (Roessig et al. 2004, Nye et al. 2009, Koenigstein et al. 2016). For example:

  • Along the southeastern Brazilian coast, up to 50 fish species have altered their distribution patterns in recent decades, with subtropical species contracting their range in the north, and tropical species expanding their ranges to the south. (Araujo et al. 2018);
  • A general shift northward in fish migration patterns has been documented in European estuaries, from Portugal to Scotland, from the mid-1970s to present (Nicolas et al. 2011);
  • Within the Tagus Estuary, along the Portuguese Atlantic coast, an increase in sea surface temperatures from 1978 to 2006 was correlated with greater abundance of sub-topical species and a decline in temperate fish species (Vinagre et al. 2009); and
  • Tropical fish species are increasing in abundance within temperate estuaries along the coast of South Africa, and future projected changes in the intensity and periodicity of precipitation and river flow is anticipated to strongly affect coastal fish populations in this region (James et al. 2013).

Large School of Fish (from Wikimedia Commons)

However, discerning climate-driven changes in marine fish distributions is challenging – the signal from climatic effects may be confounded by other factors such as forage availability, changes in inshore habitat structure and commercial overharvesting. In addition, marine fish populations can undergo cyclic patterns of abundance associated with multi-decadal natural changes in oceanic currents, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (Crozier and Hutchings 2014). Even under nearly constant environmental conditions, fish distributions are not static. Fish populations occupy optimal habitats under low abundances, but also disperse into less optimal habitats at high abundances (Sinclair 1988, MacCall 1990). This means that species that are only rarely or periodically seen in temperate estuaries may be driven there in response to higher densities/competition for resources in more tropical waters and not necessarily because of favorable temperatures.

Many aquatic and marine species are sensitive to temperatures just a few degrees higher than those they are generally adapted to in nature (Kennedy et al. 2002). Oceanic warming simultaneously reduces the total amount of dissolved oxygen that can be held in water and increases demand for oxygen in cold blooded aquatic animals. Even modest increases in ocean temperatures may affect growth/metabolism, determine behavior and alter distribution patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2014) has documented an average global temperature increase among land and ocean surfaces of 0.85 °C (1.53 °F) between 1880 and 2012. The upper ocean (0 to 75 m) has, on average, warmed by 0.11 °C (0.20 °F) every decade since the early 1970s.

Increased surface water temperature, along with changing patterns of precipitation and riverine hydrology may alter the timing and magnitude of phytoplankton production in estuaries, favoring production by species known to form harmful algal blooms (HABs) (Pyke et al. 2008)—such as the notorious “red tides” currently occupying a large expanse of the southwestern Florida coastline, resulting in massive fish kills, and respiratory distress to humans on beaches. Toxic effects of HABs vary; some forms may exhibit toxicity to fish and aquatic biota even at low cell concentrations, while others may be essentially non-toxic but present a nuisance through high biomass production – they interfere with grazing by zooplankton and alter patterns of nutrient supply and elemental recycling (Gobler et al. 2017).

Along the U.S. Atlantic coast, warm-temperate fish species fish assemblages may benefit from climate changes that are impacting cooler-water species, by expansion of their range to more northern estuaries. One of the most compelling examples of this phenomenon is Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Nye et al. (2009) documented changes in the abundance and latitudinal distribution for several bottom-dwelling species, which were historically abundant and characteristic of the Narragansett Bay winter fish community, including red hake (Urophycis chuss), and silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis). Simultaneously, the abundance of warm water species that migrate into the Bay during summer such as butterfish (Peprilus triacanthus) and scup (Stenotomus chrysops) increased.  These changes coincided with a 90% decline in winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) abundance in the Bay (Oviatt 2004, Jefferies et al. 2011). Winter flounder spawn in estuaries at temperatures ranging from 1 to 10 °C, with optimal spawning conditions at 2 to 5 °C. The evolution of cold water spawning in winter flounder is a mechanism for avoiding predation on newly emerged/metamorphosing larvae, principally by sand shrimp (Crangon septemspinosa). Winter flounder eggs hatch when sand shrimp have historically been absent or dormant in the Bay. However, as winter water temperatures increased, sand shrimp remained active and consumed flounder larvae (Taylor and Collie 2003). Warmer waters are also associated with greater egg mortality rates, reduced larval growth rates, and diminished larval condition (Keller and Klein-McPhee 2000). Winter flounder have historically exhibited long-term cyclical abundance patterns; however, abundance peaks have diminished in recent decades.

Further south, faunal shifts have also been documented for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, including the extirpation of rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax). Smelt abundance in Hudson River tributaries began to decline during the 1970s, and the last recorded specimen from the Hudson drainage was collected in 1998 (Waldman 2006). Another cold-water species, Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod), has also diminished in the lower Hudson River; a contributing factor may be the species’ naturally short lifespan at this extreme southern portion of their distributional range (most Hudson River tomcod only live one year compared to 3 to 4 years in the northern reaches of their range). It is expected that the Hudson River population will further diminish, and perhaps become extirpated entirely in the coming decades (Waldman 2014).

In contrast, gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), historically rare north of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, colonized the Hudson River during the 1970s and has become established as far north as the Merrimack River, Massachusetts.  Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), another species most often associated with aquatic habitats (including large coastal river basins) to the south of the Hudson drainage, became increasingly abundant in the tidal Hudson river during the mid- to late-1990s (Daniels et al. 2005). Another recent faunal shift in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary is the increasing presence of species in the drum family (Sciaenidae), including Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus), spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus), and red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus). These species are most often associated with estuaries to the south such as Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay, and Albemarle-Pamlico Sound (Waldman 2014).

The coastal management community is paying close attention to changes in the distribution and abundance of marine and estuarine biota, as well as other climate-related impacts on coastal habitats, water quality, and recreation. Future climate projections and vulnerability may require re-assessing present-day federal, state, and local water quality (e.g., temperature and dissolved oxygen) standards for estuaries and coastal waters. For example, meeting existing thermal standards may represent an increasing challenge for electrical power generating facilities and other industries which discharge heated effluent into estuaries and coastal bays. Maintaining compliance will likely require the development of newer, more efficient technology and operational procedures, especially if regulators were to adopt more stringent (protective) criteria to protect coastal resources.

Power Plant (photo by Dr. Yozzo)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program (NEP) has identified projected Increases in ocean surface temperature as a key vulnerability of its program to protect and restore the water quality and ecological integrity of estuaries of national significance. EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries Program (https://www.epa.gov/cre) provides resources to support individual NEP component programs, and the coastal management community, in identifying climate vulnerabilities, developing adaptation measures/strategies and educating and engaging local stakeholders affected by climate change impacts in coastal areas throughout the U.S.

 

 

 

Literature Cited

Araujo, F.G., T.P. Teixeira, A.P.P. Guedes, M. C. C. de Azevedo and A.L.M. Pessanha. 2018. Shifts in the abundance and distribution of shallow water fish fauna on the southeastern Brazilian coast: a response to climate change. Hydrobiologia 814: 205-218.

Crozier, L.G. and J.A. Hutchings. 2014. Plastic and evolutionary responses to climate change in fish. Evolutionary Applications 7:68-87.

Daniels, R.A., K.E. Limburg, R.E. Schmidt, D.L. Strayer and R.C. Chambers. 2005. Changes in Fish Assemblages in the Tidal Hudson River, New York. American Fisheries Society Symposium 45:471–503.

Gobler, C. J., O.M. Doherty, T.K. Hattenrath-Lehmann, A.W. Griffith, Y. Kang and R.W. Litaker. 2017. Ocean warming since 1982 has expanded the niche of toxic algal blooms in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114: 4975-4980.

IPCC 2014. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1132 pp.

James, N.C., L. van Niekerk, A.K. Whitfield, W.M. Potts, A. Gotz and A.W. Paterson. 2013. Effects of climate change on South African estuaries and associated fish species. Climate Research 57: 233–248.

Jeffries, H.P., A. Keller and S.Hale. 2011. Predicting Winter Flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) Catches by Time Series Analysis. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 46:650-659.

Keller, A.A. and G. Klein-MacPhee. 2000. Impact of elevated temperature on the growth, survival, and trophic dynamics of winter flounder larvae: a mesocosm study. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 57: 2382-2392.

Koenigstein, S., F.C. Mark, S. Gofsling-Reisemann, H. Reuter and H. Poertner. 2016. Modelling climate change impacts on marine fish populations: process-based integration of ocean warming, acidification and other environmental drivers. Fish and Fisheries 17: 972–1004.

MacCall, A.D. 1990. Dynamic Geography of Marine Fish Populations. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Nicolas, D., A. Chaalali, J. Drouineau, J. Lobry, A. Uriarte, A. Borja and P. Boet. 2011. Impact of global warming on European tidal estuaries: some evidence of northward migration of estuarine fish species. Regional Environmental Change Journal 11:639–649.

Nye, J.A., J.S. Link, J.A. Hare and W.J. Overholtz. 2009. Changing spatial distribution of fish stocks in relation to climate and population size on the Northeast United States continental shelf. Marine Ecology Progress Series 393: 111-129.

Oviatt, C.A. 2004. The changing ecology of temperate coastal waters during a warming trend. Estuaries 27:895–904.

Pyke, C. R., R. G. Najjar, M. B. Adams, D. Breitburg, M. Kemp, C. Hershner, R. Howarth, M. Mulholland, M. Paolisso, D. Secor, K. Sellner, D. Wardrop, and R. Wood. 2008. Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay: State-of-the-Science Review and Recommendations. A Report from the Chesapeake Bay Program Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC), Annapolis, MD. 59 pp.

Roessig, J.M., C. M. Woodley, J.J. Cech, Jr. and L.J. Hansen. 2004. Effects of Global Climate Change on Marine and Estuarine Fishes and Fisheries. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 14: 251–275.

Sinclair, M. 1988. Marine Populations: an Essay on Population Regulation and Speciation. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.

Taylor D.L. and J.S. Collie. 2003. Effect of temperature on the functional response and foraging behavior of the sand shrimp Crangon septemspinosa preying on juvenile winter flounder Pseudopleuronectes americanus. Marine Ecology Progress Series 263:217–234.

Vinagre, C., F.D. Santos, H.N. Cabral and M.J. Costa. 2009. Impact of climate and hydrology on juvenile fish recruitment towards estuarine nursery grounds in the context of climate change. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 85:479-486.

Waldman, J.R. 2006. The diadromous fish fauna of the Hudson River: life histories, conservation concerns, and research avenues. Chapter 13, pp. 171-188 in: J.S. Levinton and J.R. Waldman, (Eds.) the Hudson River Estuary. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Waldman, J. 2014. Climate change: a cool-eyed look at fishing in our warmer waters. The Fisherman, March 2014: 4-7.

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Great Ecology’s Blog Named a Top 40 Blog of 2018

Great Ecology is proud to announce that our blog was selected as one of the top 40 ecology blogs of 2018 by Feedspot (we’re number 18, and in good company with folks like The Prairie Ecologist, Sonoma Ecology Center, and The Applied Ecologist’s Blog, just to name a few!). We strive to make complex research accessible, keep on the forefront of the latest trends in ecological science, and highlight innovations, designs, policies, and ideas that are important to our field.

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