Happy Thanksgiving!

Seattle Aquarium 2016

This Thanksgiving, all of us at the Seattle Aquarium are thankful for:

You! Since 1977, the Seattle Aquarium has been dedicated to serving Seattle and the Puget Sound area in working to fulfill our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment. The Aquarium welcomes over 800,000 visitors each year, local residents and tourists alike, to explore our exhibits, many of which focus on the ecosystems of Puget Sound and Washington’s coastal waters.

Seattle Aquarium 2016

Our members and donors, who provide critical support for our education and conservation programming, including providing marine science education for over 40,000 local schoolchildren each year; performing research on local species like the sea star; and training volunteer beach naturalists who teach visitors to Puget Sound shorelines how to enjoy the fragile nearshore habitat without hurting the animals that call it home.

Seattle Aquarium 2016

Our incredible volunteers. In 2015, 1,335 volunteers donated 100,032 hours of service to the Seattle Aquarium, representing a donated value of over $2.3 million!

one world ocean 650x300

New climate change legislature. This year, the Paris Agreement was formally ratified, galvanizing the climate action that will help restore the health of Earth’s one ocean.

Shawn Larson & Rialto, Seattle Aquarium 2016

Our staff, who have put in countless hours rehabilitating and caring for a variety of critters. From Rialto the sea otter pup to Tucker the olive ridley sea turtle, we’ve loved nursing animals back to health—and sharing highlights with you along the way.

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And the results are in! 2016 octopus census

Diver looking for an octopus during the 2016 census

Last month, during our annual octopus census, Aquarium staff and divers from around Puget Sound counted 41 giant Pacific octopuses (GPOs) at 13 locations. Below is a Q&A with Senior Aquarist Kathryn Kegel about the results.

Q: The Seattle Aquarium has been coordinating the octopus census for 16 years. Was anything different this year?
A: This year we made some changes to try and get more consistent data going forward. One change was switching the time of the census from January to October, when there is better weather (and therefore more divers willing to go out). Because this census relies on volunteers from the Puget Sound diving community, we never know how much data we will get. This year, we also sent out Aquarium staff to survey six sites, which we will start visiting for octopus census every year (Cove 2, Redondo, Day Island, KVI Towers, Sunrise Beach, Zee’s Reef).

Q: With this type of citizen science, is there ever questionable data?

A: I look through all the data, and if I have a question about any sighting, I will throw that data out. We do not want to overstate what was reported. For example, if I see a report of a golf ball-sized GPO, that is probably a red octopus, and so I’ll throw that data out. I’ll make an exception if there is photo evidence or something else to make the report more solid. Since we have divers report the depth and den site where they see the octopus, I can also throw out duplicate data, if I think two divers are reporting the same animal.

Q: Do we know how many giant Pacific octopuses are in Puget Sound?

A: We don’t know their population here, but the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is in charge of their management, looks at GPOs that are caught by the recreational fishery and any bycatch to determine the best management of the species here in Puget Sound. Based on that, they are not concerned about our GPO population. There is no commercial fishery here for octopuses, but there is a small recreational fishery.

Read our previous our previous blog post to learn about Aquarium staff members participating in this year’s census!

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Discover Science Weekend guest blog #3

To gear up for Discover Science Weekend, November 11–13, we’re putting together a guest blog series featuring some of the researchers who will be joining us for the event. Our third and final post is from the Seattle Aquarium’s own Angela Smith, a laboratory specialist.

Harbor seal saliva

The Seattle Aquarium has been conducting conservation research since 1995. We have an in-house Washington Department of Ecology-accredited laboratory, three staff members and seven volunteers. We regularly conduct water quality testing of all the exhibits, including ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, salinity and fecal coliforms. However, most of our research is focused on marine mammal conservation endocrinology. We use non-invasive techniques of measuring reproductive and stress hormones through opportunistically collected fecal and saliva samples. These samples come from our harbor seals, river otters and sea otters. We now have 21 years of fecal endocrine data on our sea otters, as well as many others throughout the world.

Sea otter poo collection

We also conduct in-situ field studies such as the annual Washington sea otter survey organized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), which we have participated in since 2001. In addition, we have a multi-year study of foraging behavior and patterns of sea otters along the northern Washington coast, which began in 2010. To date, we have six years of data comprising approximately 2,000 foraging dives.

Not all of our research involves mammals. The Seattle Aquarium has been conducting rockfish surveys in Puget Sound for 12 years. We also annually travel to Kona, Hawaii, where we have seven years of video surveys of fish abundance in the reef ecosystems documenting coral cover and coral reef fish diversity. For well over a decade, the Aquarium participated in sixgill shark research, a collaborative effort with WDFW and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most of the tagging and genetics sample collection occurred right under the Aquarium’s pier. This work was featured in the documentary, Mystery Sharks of Seattle.

Seattle Aquarium lab space

Most recently, our work has turned toward animal rehabilitation. The Aquarium has participated in sea turtle rehabilitation for many years. In December 2015, a cold-stunned olive ridley sea turtle, Tucker, was found on Cannon Beach in Oregon. Following transport to this facility, he received intensive on-site care until his transfer to Sea World San Diego, the rehabilitated sea turtle destination on the West Coast. Over the years, the Seattle Aquarium has also reared orphaned sea otter pups that were not releasable back to the wild. At the beginning of August this year, a sea otter pup was found stranded on Rialto Beach on the Washington Coast. For two full months, the pup, Rialto, received around-the-clock care until he was ready to be transferred to his forever home, Vancouver Aquarium.

About Angela:
Angela Smith is a laboratory specialist who works in the Seattle Aquarium laboratory with Amy Green and Dr. Shawn Larson. She has assisted primarily with the water quality testing, endocrinology and genetics projects which include sample processing and analysis. Originally from Virginia, she has lived in the Seattle area for almost 20 years and worked for the Aquarium for 19 of those years. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Norfolk State University and a master’s degree in marine science from College of William and Mary.


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Finding-and raising-Dory

Movies frequently have the potentially unintended effect of sparking sales of a particular species of animal as pets. For instance, sales of clownfish soared following the release of Finding Nemo; shelters reported spikes in Dalmatian populations after the release of 101 Dalmatians; and the Harry Potter films spurred sales (and subsequent surrenders) of pet owls.

The effect of Finding Dory on demand for blue tang fish is unknown at this point, but it was definitely a source of concern for reef conservationists leading up to the release of the movie. Although in the movie we see that Dory was born in an aquarium, in reality blue tangs—like many reef fish—have proven to be nearly impossible to raise via aquaculture. It’s difficult to get the adult fish to spawn in captivity—and even if they do, raising the eggs is extremely challenging.

Why is that? Blue tang eggs are very tiny and must go through a month-long, free-floating stage before the larvae eventually settle out. Reproducing the exact conditions and very specific food sources needed for each stage of the fishes’ development has been an elusive goal.

Because of these difficulties, currently all blue tangs in public or home aquariums must be captured from the wild. Therefore, an increase in pet sales of this species could have a big impact on wild blue tang populations.

One positive effect of the concern generated by the film, however, has been an increased effort to make captive rearing of this species possible: in July of this year, the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Lab announced that they had successfully reared 27 juvenile blue tangs. After 41 days of development in the free-floating phase, the larvae settled to the bottom, and by 52 days had taken on the characteristic blue coloration of adult blue tangs.

We hope this initial success will eventually lead to a reduction in collection of blue tangs and other reef fishes from the wild. Interested in learning more about blue tangs and other amazing animals found in the tropical Pacific? Visit the Seattle Aquarium!

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Discover Science Weekend guest blog #2

To gear up for Discover Science Weekend, November 11–13, we’ve put together a guest blog series featuring some of the researchers who will be joining us for the event. Our second post comes to us from Trevor A. Branch, associate professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, writing on the topic of “Antarctic blue whales: nearly whaled to extinction, now there is some hope.”

Antarctic blue whale. Photo via Isabel Beasley.

Antarctic blue whale. Photo via Isabel Beasley.

Blue whales are the largest animals ever to have lived on the Earth—larger than any dinosaur—and no blue whales are as big or used to be as numerous as those that feed in the krill-rich waters of the Antarctic. Some may have exceeded 100 feet (30.t m) in length, with the tongue alone weighing more than an adult elephant. Initially, Antarctic blue whales escaped the whaling plunder of the Yankee whalers’ Moby Dick era because they were too fast to catch, and sank upon death, but the industrial whaling era came upon them with a vengeance starting in 1904. These developments included fast boats, explosive-tipped harpoons, stern slipways that allowed on-board processing, air pumps to keep them afloat, and eventually floating fleets of catcher vessels, supply vessels and processing motherships that left no refuge for blue whales anywhere in the world.

In one year, these massive southern ocean whaling fleets caught more than 31,000 blue whales—twice today’s global population of blue whales. By the 1960s Antarctic blue whales had been reduced to less than a half percent of their original population size of 239,000. Worse was to come: despite a global ban on blue whales, Soviet whalers continued hunting them—illegally—using the biggest whaling fleets yet assembled, and the population collapsed further to just 360 individuals, a mere 0.15 percent of their pre-whaling levels.

Antarctic blue whale. Photo via Isabel Beasley.

Antarctic blue whale. Photo via Isabel Beasley.

Since 1973 though, whaling has ended, and the population has grown over time, reaching 2,280 in 1998, and likely increasing at seven percent per year since then. How do we know their trends in numbers over time? I used mathematics and computer models and applied these to data from expensive ship-based sighting surveys around the Antarctic. It’s surprisingly difficult and expensive to count blue whales since the ocean is vast and it’s hard to find a small number of gigantic yet elusive whales. Newer methods rely on taking photos of individuals and seeing how often you identify the same whales again from their splotch patterns. Such mark-recapture methods have suggested Antarctic blue whale numbers may have increased to 3,000–4,000: a remarkable tenfold increase from their lowest point.

The main threats to blue whales worldwide are deaths from being hit by ships and entanglement in fishing gear, with other concerns including loud noise from navy sonar and oil and gas exploration, pollution, and the harder-to-pin-down, long-term effects of global warming and ocean acidification on their main prey. All of these factors are minor, though, compared to the enormous toll that whaling took on blue whales during the 20th century.

Further reading:

Branch TA, Matsuoka K, Miyashita T (2004) Evidence for increases in Antarctic blue whales based on Bayesian modelling. Marine Mammal Science 20:726-754

Branch TA et al. (2007) Past and present distribution, densities and movements of blue whales Balaenoptera musculus in the Southern Hemisphere and northern Indian Ocean. Mammal Review 37:116-175

About Trevor:
Trevor Branch is an associate professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. He uses mathematical models and synthesis of available data to help conserve and manage large whale populations and fisheries. Among his scientific papers are 14 on blue whales including their status, distribution, subspecies separation, catches and trends over time.


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