Seattle Aquarium Hawaii reef research report

2016 marks the eighth consecutive year that Seattle Aquarium staff members have conducted reef fish surveys at eight sites along the northwestern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Below, Curator of Conservation Research Dr. Shawn Larson shares her journal from this year’s surveys.

Day 1: January 30, 2016

Arrived at the home of our hosts, Dom and Marie Addario, in Puako late last night after a flight delay and unplanned stop in Portland. Regardless we were ready to go by 7am Hawaii time. The weather was beautiful and the water was relatively calm with 2–4’ waves. We looked at Puako sites 1, 2 and 5 and the ocean was a little rough so we drove 30 minutes north to sites 6 and 7 in Mahukona. The water conditions were good and, as long as we timed our dives, we had no problem accessing the sites and getting into and out of the water with all of our gear—which consisted of full-face masks, communication units, reels and cameras.

Day 2: January 31, 2016

Today the ocean conditions are even better. Little swell and no wind waves. We feel very lucky because our partners in Hawaii, the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), have been unable to dive and do their underwater surveys for over a month. In fact they suggested we postpone our trip until the end of February. We decided we couldn’t do that because the house that we were staying in wasn’t available to us later and we just had to take our chances. We were in luck and able to survey sites 1 and 2 in Puako today. Site 1 is the turtle cleaning station and we saw many turtles there! Site 2 is the most difficult to access from shore and all of us sustained minor injuries because of it—urchin spines and twisted ankles and skinned knees. Even so it was a very productive and good day and we were well on our way to getting most of our work done.

One of many turtles we saw at the turtle cleaning station on Site 1.

Day 3: February 1, 2016

Today we dove with Captain Pete McCormick off his boat the Hapuna. We’ve been doing this for four years and it’s always a treat. Diving off Pete’s boat makes the surveys at sites 3 and 4 off of the Old Kona Airport in Kona a breeze. These used to be our longest surface swims, when we had to access it from shore. Today, there was a gentle swell and our dives went very smoothly. Afterward we motored south past Kona-Kailua to site 8 where the newly discovered Acropera corals live. We surveyed it for just the second time since 2014, as we couldn’t access it last year because of the high surf conditions. There were lots of fish but unfortunately several of the Acropera coral heads were dead. This is due to last summer’s coral bleaching event: unusually warm water temperatures in Hawaii caused bleaching of the corals and sometimes death. Over half of the corals that we saw seemed to be dead.

Over half of the corals we saw seemed to be dead due to unusually warm water temperatures in Hawaii, which caused bleaching of the corals and sometimes death.

Day 4: February 2, 2016

Our luck finally ran out and today the swell was too big to dive our remaining site, 5, in Puako. So we took it easy and swam around checking out site 1 more closely and prepared to give a talk about the research and our findings to the Puako homeowners association at the old historic church on Puako Road.

Day 5: February 3, 2016

Finally we were able to get site 5 done! The waves were still a bit large but this was our last day of diving so we just had to go for it. It was a little stressful timing the waves sets so we didn’t get hammered going out and coming back in but no one got hurt and we were able to survey all our sites. The last duty of the day was to give our talk to the homeowners association about our work and what we have found. We spoke for over an hour to about 20 interested Puako residents discussing our work, coral bleaching and ways to keep the reef healthy.

Day 6: February 4, 2016

This is our non-diving de-gas day so we can purge all the nitrogen that we built up in our tissues from our week of diving preparing for the flight home. To use the time wisely we met with University of Hawaii, Hilo marine biologist Tracy Weigner, a marine ecologist who studies water quality from septic systems and other point sources in Puako and the potential deleterious effects on the reef. Dr. Weigner and her colleagues would like to partner with us on both water quality monitoring as well as the sharing of reef data. It was a very productive meeting and look forward to working with our new partners.

Day 7: February 5, 2016

Today is a travel day and after dropping off all of our scuba gear we headed back to Kona to briefly meet with Dr. Bill Walsh with DAR to share our data and check in before heading to the airport to fly home. Aloha, it was a great trip!

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More than meets the eye: octopus age and maturity

Kong - giant Pacific octopus

We can look at another human being and estimate their age pretty easily—but it’s not so simple with octopuses. Scientists haven’t yet found a reliable way to identify the age of giant Pacific octopuses (or GPOs), since no part of the animal’s body, even the beak, shows any growth rings or other measures. Even size isn’t an indicator of age, since GPO growth is highly dependent on food availability when the animals are young.

Determining GPO maturity—the point at which the animals are capable of reproducing—isn’t a simple matter either. Various studies have attempted to gauge GPO maturity at anywhere from 1.5 to 3 years of age but these are estimates; anatomical studies are more accurate. Such studies of female and male GPOs show that females are mature when they have well-developed eggs in their ovaries; males when they have mature spermatophores in their internal storage. Needless to say, that’s not something that can be determined while looking at an octopus on exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium, or while diving in Puget Sound!

Jelly Bean - giant Pacific octopus

As we mentioned above, size isn’t an indicator of GPO age—and it’s not a measure of maturity either. The average weight of a sexually mature GPO varies broadly, from about 15 pounds to over 60 pounds. Males tend to mature at smaller weights than females. Females and males smaller than 22 pounds or so tend to be immature but, complicating matters, some considerably larger animals may still be immature.

Want to learn more about GPOs? Check out our octopus fact sheet, then join us for Octopus Week at the Seattle Aquarium, February 13­–21!

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Seattle Aquarium 2016 Chairman's Dinner honorees

Chairmans 's Dinner 2016

Pictured from left to right: Bob Donegan, board chair; Robert W. Davidson, president and CEO; Peter Seligmann, Seattle Aquarium Medal winner; Gini Beck, Scott S. Patrick Award winner; Jeffery R. Cordell, Conservation Research Award winner; and Randy Tinseth, immediate past chair

The Seattle Aquarium bestowed its annual awards at our annual Chairman’s Dinner on January 27. The evening began with remarks and recap of the Aquarium’s 2015 activities by Board Chairman Bob Donegan. Immediate Past Chair Randy J.  Tinseth then presented longtime board member Gini Beck with the Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award. Named for the late Aquarium board member and Seattle Seahawks executive who served with extraordinary passion, the award annually recognizes the Seattle Aquarium board member whose service best exemplifies the passion, leadership and enthusiasm which characterized Scott Patrick’s life and board service.

Seattle Aquarium President & CEO Robert W. Davidson presented the evening’s remaining awards. Conservation International Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder Peter Seligmann was honored with the Seattle Aquarium Medal, which is presented each year to an individual whose leadership and lifetime accomplishments reflect the mission of the Seattle Aquarium: Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment.

Peter Seligmann is a passionate, influential advocate who has provided a lifetime of leadership on issues related to global health. A dynamic communicator and thought leader, has been an influential and inspiring voice in conservation for nearly 40 years. He works in partnership with governments, communities, and businesses to find solutions to ensure the sustainability of our natural resources.

Seligmann began his career in 1976 with The Nature Conservancy, serving as the organization’s western region land steward, and later became the director of the California Nature Conservancy. He is currently the chairman and CEO of Conservation International, a global nonprofit organization that he co-founded in 1987. Under his direction, Conservation International has become a cutting-edge leader in valuing and sustainably caring for nature for the well-being of people.

The University of Washington’s Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Principal Research Scientist Jeffery R. Cordell received the Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award, which honors individuals performing leadership research in the field.

Cordell has been a research scientist at the UW School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences since 1977. His research mainly focuses on understanding how juvenile salmon and the invertebrates they feed on are affected by human development and how degraded habitats can be improved. His current work is focused on salmon habitat along Seattle’s central waterfront and is a key element of the ongoing seawall replacement project.

Despite the highly altered shoreline, Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle still serve as a migratory corridor and rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, including the threatened chinook species. The need to replace the seawall prompted the City to form a team to focus on habitat enhancements along the central waterfront, and presented a unique opportunity to improve the habitat conditions of the structure. Cordell has led the long-term research, funded by the City of Seattle and Washington State Sea Grant, to design, install and monitor large-scale test panels at three locations along the waterfront.

Cordell and his team tested the potential benefits of slopes and crevices along the seawall, exploring how and whether engineered complexity can increase species diversity and abundance. As a result, Seattle will be the first city in the world to incorporate habitat panels into a large expanse of seawall. The city plans to monitor the panels for several years after construction, generating the data needed to design future ecologically beneficial seawalls, both in Puget Sound and around the world.

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Sustainable seafood for all!

Our commitment to sustainable seafood here at the Seattle Aquarium extends beyond our own dinner plates: all the animals in our care, from fur seals to flounders, have diets that include as much sustainable seafood as possible.

Sustainable seafood means making choices that are healthy for our oceans. To make sure the food is healthy for our animals as well, the seafood we feed them is always frozen when collected (to kill parasites and prevent spoiling) and defrosted before feeding. As our Curator of Mammals & Birds Traci Belting, who is in charge of our seafood supply, says, “Since our animals eat their food raw, it’s imperative it be of the highest quality!“

sustainable seafood

You might know this squid species as market squid, opalescent squid or calamari. Because they grow quickly and reproduce at a young age (only living four to nine months), they can keep up with fishing pressure.

The krill seen here, as well as the smaller shrimp-like euphasids that we feed, are collected in the Antarctic. The fishery is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

We feed herring (above) and mackerel (below) to our giant Pacific octopus, our mammals and our largest fish. Both are high in fat, which provides a lot of calories to our animals. Most herring fisheries are listed as “Good Alternatives” in the Seafood Watch guidelines, and a few are even “Best Choice.”

Anchovy, anyone? The West Coast fishery for northern anchovy (our local species) is sustainable, but most of those fish are used as bait. People usually eat European anchovy; however, there is a growing fishery here in Washington and in Oregon for anchovies that are used as food fish.

Our mussels are from Penn Cove, and the same vendor that delivers to some of Seattle’s best seafood restaurants. Shellfish lend themselves to low-impact aquaculture because they don’t have the same concerns as some farmed finfish including resources to feed them and risk of disease.

Visit our website to learn more about sustainable seafood!

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Aquarium hosts sea star wasting summit

On January 14 and 15, the Seattle Aquarium convened a gathering of experts from around the country to discuss the latest findings about sea star wasting disease (SSWD). The disease causes sea stars to waste away, giving the impression of “melting.” First observed in Washington waters in June of 2013, it has impacted 20 sea star species along the west coast of North America. SSWD has killed millions and millions of sea stars is being called the largest wildlife die-off ever recorded. Says Seattle Aquarium staff veterinarian Dr. Lesanna Lahner, “In just a few years, sunflower sea stars have gone from being one of the most common species in Puget Sound to being incredibly hard to find.”

sea star wasting disease

Sea stars are keystone species—which means their presence and role within an ecosystem has a disproportionate effect on other species within the same ecosystem. Sea stars, for example, prey on sea urchins. With the loss of sea stars in the wild, there are observations that sea urchin populations are increasing and expanding their ranges.

The Seattle Aquarium has been involved in the effort to understand SSWD from the start, collaborating with institutions including the Vancouver Aquarium, SeaDoc Society, Cornell University, USGS Wildlife Conservation Society and many others, to determine the cause of this unusual mortality event.

Some questions about the disease have been answered but many others remain. “Determining the cause of die-offs in wildlife is always challenging but even more so when it’s happening underwater,” comments Dr. Lahner. A virus has been found that is associated with the disease in some species, but its definitive cause remains to be determined. Current thinking says it could be toxins in the environment or changes in the sea stars’ immune function due to changing water temperatures and ocean acidification.

We’ll update our blog with developments regarding this disturbing die-off as they occur. In the meantime, click here for media coverage of the summit, and visit our website for an overview of SSWD and our previous blog posts on the topic.

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