A tough day counting octopuses in Puget Sound

Going to work can be such a drag, right? You get up early and choose an outfit for the day…then there’s the commute…and when you finally arrive, it feels like you’re surrounded by a bunch of wild animals!

Seattle Aquarium visitor engagement staff members Cari and Katie know just how that feels: they recently went out on the Aquarium boat with several Aquarium life sciences staff members to participate in our annual octopus census. On October 11, Katie went out with Chris, Rob and Jeff to dive sites at Day Island and Titlow Beach; while on October 12, Cari joined Andy, Joel and Kaela to check out Blake Island and Blakely Rock.

Both said it was a really fun experience to practice working on the boat and participating in Aquarium dive ops—as Kaela said of the Blake Island dive, “It’s like we’re diving with every animal in the whole Aquarium all at one time!”

Octopus in Den

The number and diversity of animals and habitats they saw on their dives was a fantastic reminder of how lucky we are to live near, and dive in, Puget Sound. Everyone had a great time, and got to do some important work collecting data for the octopus census at the same time.

Held each year, the Aquarium’s octopus census asks divers in the Puget Sound area to report sightings of giant Pacific octopuses to help us monitor our local octopus populations. This year’s census took place October 8–16. And how many octopuses were spotted by the Aquarium teams? Around 30—but that number is sure to increase as reports from other divers are compiled. We’ll share results when all report as tallied.

Octopus arm

Not a bad day at work, all in all! Interested in learning more about our octopus census? Visit our website or read this blog post.

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Salmon eggs by the numbers

Even though this year’s Cedar River Salmon Journey is drawing to a close, the Seattle Aquarium is a great place to see and learn about salmon—no matter the season! Take a look at the chinook salmon eggs shown below; they were just added to our salmon hatchery trough. Their developing eyes tell us that they’re about a month old.

salmon eggs

Think that looks like a lot of eggs? For chinook, it’s a drop in the bucket. Chinook, or king, salmon lay more eggs and bigger eggs than other Pacific salmon. Thomas Quinn reports in his book The Behavior and Ecology of Pacific Salmon & Trout that chinook lay an average of 5,400 eggs. Coming in a close second are steelhead with 4,900 eggs, and the other species ranging from 1,000+ to 3,000+ eggs.

In terms of size, chinook eggs weigh almost nothing: about .00066 of a pound! But they’re the heavyweights of Pacific salmon. Chum come in second at about .00063 of a pound—and other species’ eggs are significantly smaller than that.

As a general fish principle, we know that bigger females tend to lay more and bigger eggs, so it’s not a surprise that chinook salmon do both. However, why do steelhead (which are almost as large as a chinook) lay lots of smaller eggs, while chum (which are smaller than both steelhead and chinook) lay fewer, but bigger eggs? An interesting question that we can’t answer!

Cedar river salmon journey

Want to learn more about salmon migration and salmon in general? Join us for the final weekend of the Cedar River Salmon Journey to talk to trained naturalists while watching salmon spawn! Click here for details.

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Discover Science Weekend guest blog #1

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 first post comes to us from Amanda Phillips of The Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Starry group

Starry flounder caught by beach seine with Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit members Phil Campbell, Will Dezan, Amanda Phillips and Lisa Hilliard.

The Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit at the WDFW employs various techniques to preserve and protect our marine ecosystem. Conducting research on the 258 fish species in Puget Sound is complex and challenging; in a given month, the 16 members of the unit may have a dozen research projects in progress to address various management needs! Fish that inhabit Puget Sound are diverse in both habitat and ecosystem requirements, necessitating a range of methods to adequately study.

Remotely operated vehicle (ROV)

Remotely operated vehicle for exploring underwater habitat and fish species in Puget Sound.

This fall, members of the unit will engage in activities ranging from using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV ) to examine deep-water habitat used by rockfishes and lingcod; to assessing mid-water species like forage fish and jellyfish using trawling and hydroacoustics; to conducting scuba surveys in search of juvenile fish settling in nearshore habitats.

Yellow eye rockfish.

Yellow eye rockfish.

We begin surveys by determining the best method given the particular species, and questions, at hand. For example, our ROV can survey complex habitat that could easily snag a net while ensuring species found in rocky habitats are minimally impacted, making it ideal for studying endangered rockfishes. Conversely, our annual trawl survey is well-suited to enumerating flatfish—found on flat, muddy substrate throughout Puget Sound—that are difficult to identify with submarine cameras because they are very good at camouflage.

Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit

Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit members Erin Wright, Dayv Lowry, Courtney Adkins, Jen Blaine, Andrea Hennings, Pete Sergeeff and Bob Pacunski completing the bottom-trawl survey.

Once a survey method is selected, a field crew is gathered, boats are staged, and gear is loaded onto one of our vessels. On some surveys, scientists spend a week sleeping in bunks aboard ship, while other surveys involve spending the morning exploring sunken ships occupied by giant Pacific octopuses, massive lingcod and hundreds of black rockfish—and still getting home in time for dinner.

Giant Pacific octopus

Giant Pacific octopus seen on scientific dive surveys.

The unit collects a treasure trove of data throughout the year, and after field operations are complete these data must be compiled and analyzed. This season, we are analyzing 15 years of scuba and trawl survey data to publish several reports, defining population structure and abundance using genetic analyses, and engaging heavily in permit writing to ensure research continues into the foreseeable future. And that is all before Halloween!

Contributing to research used for conservation of Puget Sound resources is richly rewarding and the Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit at WDFW is excited to share more about what we do during Discover Science Weekend at the Seattle Aquarium. Come by and see us!

About Amanda:
Amanda has worked as a scientific technician with the Puget Sound Marine Fish Science Unit at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for the past three years. She is currently focused on piloting and reviewing videos collected by WDFW’s remotely operated vehicle and examining the spatial and temporal distribution of plankton in Puget Sound. Prior to WDFW, she worked with the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, utilizing scat-detection canines to collect and analyze southern resident killer whale scat; she also spent a year at sea as an on-board fisheries observer for the West Coast Groundfish Bottom Trawl Fishery.

Off the water, she can be found outdoors, backpacking, rock climbing or snowshoeing in Washington’s wilderness areas.


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The how and why of salmon migration


This is the season we celebrate salmon returning to their natal streams and rivers right here in Seattle, but how do salmon find their way home? Before we tackle that, though, a larger question: why do they do it?

The ultimate purpose for salmon to return to their home streams and rivers is to reproduce and ensure the survival of their offspring. Simple enough. But why is returning to the natal site part of the process? Consider the alternative: swimming upstream to just any old river could have some pitfalls. A random river might not have suitable sites for spawning, but a salmon’s birthplace is already a proven success for spawning. It may not have mates of the same species. Or conditions might not favor that type of salmon. For all these reasons, we can see why salmon navigate their way home.

In recent years, studies have shown that in the open ocean environment, salmon use the magnetic field of the Earth to guide their migration. This helps them move from the coastal areas near their spawning grounds to rich feeding areas, and then back again toward the end of their lives. For example, most of the salmon returning to Seattle-area rivers right now are coming from feeding grounds in Alaska, but some may be traveling from as far as Japan.

Salmon use both the intensity and the inclination of Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves. Unlike their navigation by sense of smell (discussed below), this ability appears to be genetically inherited by a salmon, not learned along its migration.

salmon at the Seattle Aquarium

Young salmon learn the smell of their home stream, possibly even memorizing it at various points along the way, as they migrate toward the ocean. As adults returning to freshwater, when they encounter that familiar smell, it stimulates them to swim upstream. So there may be some “testing of the waters” as salmon migrate home. If they swim up the wrong river, that memorized scent of their birth stream will fade, decreasing their drive to swim upstream. Then they may travel downstream for a bit, until they encounter that home stream smell again. The more they sense the smell of their birthplace, the more they swim upstream. It’s a bit like playing that child’s game of “hot and cold.”

There are still many unknowns in the famous story of the salmon swimming upstream. Evidence exists that salmon from different reaches of the same river will tend to migrate to the same stretch where they originated. But do they return to the very same nest site where they were hatched? How close do they get? At some point, that urge to return home will be up against other factors: selecting a nest site, selecting a mate, using remaining energy stores.

Interested in learning more about salmon migration and salmon in general? Join us for the Cedar River Salmon Journey to talk to trained naturalists while watching salmon spawn! Click here for remaining dates, times, locations and directions.

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A historic moment for climate change

one world ocean

Last week, in a historic move, the Paris Agreement on climate change was formally ratified by the European Union, ensuring the Agreement had enough support for entry into force in early November. The ratification is essential for galvanizing the climate action that will help restore the health of Earth’s one ocean.

First things first: what exactly is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement, and represents the first time that all countries have agreed they will act together to limit the rise in global temperatures. Countries signing the Agreement agree to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. For the U.S., this means cutting emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels.

Wait, wasn’t the Paris Agreement agreed upon in December?

At least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions were needed to formally sign on in order for the agreement to be binding. As of October 13, 78 nations had officially ratified the agreement.

The work is just beginning.

Participating countries must begin to determine how to set these ambitious climate change strategies into motion. For the U.S., this means developing new and innovative low-carbon solutions and deploying new energy technologies. As U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz stated, “With each country doing their part to meet the Paris Agreement, we can leverage science and technology to combat climate change, improve quality of life around the world, and create unprecedented opportunities through a low-carbon economy.”

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