Know your beach-this week from the beach

#1 in the 2017 series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

Captain Bill talking about crabs

Sunshine, warmth and extremely low tides (some of the lowest of the summer) were a great way to kick off our beach naturalist season over Memorial Day weekend. I want to give thanks, not only to the 160-plus naturalists who volunteer their time with us to share their love of Puget Sound and all its wonderful sea creatures, but also to all the enthusiastic, curious and engaging visitors who came out to see us. We love all of you!

Speaking of love…I decided to focus most of my report from the beach this week on a really important activity among all our tide pool denizens—reproduction! It has been on my mind since the trainings with our new and veteran naturalists this spring because we had a very exciting reproductive event occur while we were out on our West Seattle beaches in late April: herring spawning. The significance of this event is still unfolding and will continue to be monitored by WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) and by citizen scientists like you! Kersti E. Muul and Buzz Shaw were the first to report the unusual sighting of millions of herring eggs covering sargassum (an invasive seaweed) at Constellation Beach in West Seattle. I asked Kersti to describe what her initial reaction was:

Millions of herring eggs on the Sargassum

Millions of Herring Eggs on the Sargassum

“On April 30, 2017 I excitedly headed down to Constellation Point to marvel at the very low tide (-2.06). I wanted to see and photograph the wildlife that would be out in spades. One of my favorite quotes from Northwest native culture is: ‘When the tide is out, the table is set.’ This couldn’t have been more evident on this day.”

Gull with herring at Constellation Beach

Gull with herring at Constellation Beach

“As I got out of the car, it was evident that we had a ‘super-event’ underway. There was a wall of people lined up along the sidewalk videoing the dozens of sea lions barking in joy, thermos-regulating, dining and splashing. I have never seen that many people there, even on the grandest of orca fly-bys. As I clumsily made my way to the shore, slippery seaweed threatening my every teeny step. I noticed seagulls diving and fighting over chrome-bright herring. Not the usual seagull stuff. Three juvenile eagles sat on glacial erratics, herons stood in stoic silence. Children screamed at squirting siphons and adults were hunched over everywhere, pointing at things.

I moved closer and saw it. The pearly white haze stretched as far as I could see on either side of my feet. Eggs. Millions of eggs. They were all over the sargassum. Nobody was looking at them. As I reached Aaron (my boyfriend) and our friend Buzz Shaw, I was already screaming; ‘These are herring eggs!’ I immediately started texting people pictures and later learned that my friends didn’t realize the implications of this, or my excitement; they just thought I was a ‘fish-nerd’ enjoying her time at the beach.

I have searched for herring eggs in the eelgrass year after year to no avail. I have not seen herring eggs here in West Seattle my whole life. Buzz agreed that it probably had been at least 30 years for him.

All of the bulkheads here, as well as pollution, have been detrimental to our eelgrass and herring stocks. Seeing the sargassum as such a good choice of substrate for this [as yet unknown] stock of herring gave me such a thrill. I immediately began daydreaming about what this could possibly mean for our Salish Sea:

  • More forage fish for dwindling salmon runs
  • More forage fish for predating wildlife, like seals, that actually prefer herring over salmon, meaning
    • less stress on salmon populations
    • More salmon for our critically endangered resident orcas
    • A possible fishing season for me in marine area 10 in the near future! (I opted to not fish last season due to such poor forecasts and starving Orcas)

I have been a fisher-woman my whole life. The implications of what I was seeing hit me immediately. I felt like a protective mom out there as I watched dozens of people trampling over the tiny pearls. I reached out to as many as I could to expand the joy, knowledge and protection.”

Herring Eggs with Eyes showing

Herring eggs with eyes showing

Well, I had to go and see the eggs for myself. I remember seeing a map during our naturalist training that showed where herring spawned in Puget Sound. There was only one tiny stretch near the Olympic Sculpture pocket park. I was always seeing photos in the springtime from a friend of mine up north, in Canada, of blades of eelgrass dripping with beautiful, translucent beads of herring eggs. I had always wanted to see some in person. I had never seen them at Constellation Beach and was really excited at what this could mean. My first visit was astounding. The number and variety of birds congregating and eating was incredible. Getting to see the beautiful herring eggs strewn about the sargassum in such huge numbers was like nothing I have seen before. I returned about 10 days later to check on them, and was treated to seeing the babies inside the eggs, moving about and getting ready to hatch out into the world. I learned that the gestation period for these herring is 10 to 14 days.

When I returned about 14 days after first seeing them, they were all gone. There was no evidence that they had ever been there! The herring eggs on my home beach were an unusual and exciting event. It remains to be seen if they will continue to return to the West Seattle beaches in the future. I certainly hope so. More forage fish in our waters, like herring, mean more food for salmon and that can mean more food for our beloved orcas and maybe even for us too!

Spring and early summer are great times to look for eggs on the beach. Walk slowly and with gentle footing, and you are sure to find some amazing life on the verge of hatching out into the world! Here is what we saw this weekend in West Seattle:

sculpin eggs

Sculpin eggs

Sculpin eggs! Check out their cute, little eyeballs! You will find sculpin eggs in the crevices of rocks and they can be a variety of colors from yellow to orange.

Opalescent Nudibranch

Opalescent nudibranch

Opalescent nudibranch eggs on moon snail egg collar

Opalescent nudibranch eggs on moon snail egg collar

Sea lemon

Sea lemon egg ribbon

It was a nudibranch party out there this weekend! There were SO many opalescent nudibranchs and lots and lots of their eggs, often found on moon snail egg collars (which house 500,000 eggs themselves). Sea lemon nudibranchs were another frequent sight along with their elegant, yellow egg ribbons.

Papa Plainfin Midshipman

Plainfin midshipman

Midshipman eggs

Midshipman eggs

These beautiful fish, plainfin midshipmen, migrate up to the shallows in the spring to mate. After the male sings a song to woo his lady, she will lay her eggs on the underside of a rock, then he will fertilize and remain with them until they hatch out, and the female will return to the deep.

Beach etiquette tip of the week—rocks are homes!

If you lift a rock to look under it, make sure to return it exactly as you found it. All rocks have tops and bottoms. Some animals can only survive topside and others only survive underneath, where they find shelter and protection.

Mating red rock crabs in the eelgrass

Mating red rock crabs in the eelgrass

The crabs were feeling the love too! I did not see any crabs with eggs this weekend, but I sure saw a lot of courtship! Female red rock crabs give off a chemical scent as they get ready to molt (shed their old exoskeleton because they grew a new one underneath). The male picks up on this scent, woos the lady crab and, if she is willing, grabs her and carries her with him until she finally molts. This could take up to two weeks! It is only when she has molted and is soft that the male is able to fertilize her eggs.

I will leave you with a slideshow of some of the other fabulous animals we got to spend our time on the beach with over the weekend. A special thank you to volunteer naturalist Steph Renaud, who found the craziest things this week and was willing to pass on her pictures of a rare sighting of a giant rainbow nudibranch AND its eggs at Saltwater State Park. This guy/gal was 8” long (they can grow as big 12”!) We can’t wait to meet you at the beach again the week of June 8—happy tide pooling!

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About Jen:

Jen writes:

“I ventured westward from Albany, NY and fell madly in love with our city from the moment I arrived. It was 21 years ago this August when Seattle first charmed me with its lush, forested parks, beautiful beaches, and water and mountain views (when the skies are clear enough) all around.

I spent the first half of my 21 years here immersed in Seattle’s wonderful coffee culture. My husband and I owned and operated Victrola Coffee on Capitol Hill until 2008. We sold our business that year to spend more time with our newborn son and I have been a stay-at-home, homeschooling mama and budding photographer and naturalist ever since! It started with me taking my young son to the beach, gazing into tide pools and wanting to know more about what we were looking at. Soon, I was going to the beach by myself, every low tide I could, and following the Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists around asking questions. 🙂

I signed up to be an interpretive volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium in 2013, became a beach naturalist volunteer in 2014, and this will be my second year as an official member of the Seattle Aquarium staff as a beach captain. My favorite place to be is on the beach, with my camera, sharing my love and knowledge of our intertidal dwellers with the hope that I will inspire others to love and protect the Salish Sea and the ocean beyond.”

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One Response to Know your beach-this week from the beach

  1. Kersti Muul says:

    love to you!

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