WSG News Blog

Current Research at Washington Sea Grant

September 12, 2019

Washington Sea Grant is proud to fund research that leads to positive impacts in Washington’s coastal communities and ecosystems. WSG-funded research aligns with four interrelated focus areas: healthy coastal ecosystems, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, resilient communities and economies, and ocean literacy and workforce development.

Learn more about the projects that were funded through the 2018-2020 Request for Proposal cycle below.

Reviving the past to protect the future: Developing a social-ecological site selection model for clam gardens

Julie Barber, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Fisheries Department; Jamie Donatuto, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is reviving an ancient mariculture practice by installing the first known present-day clam garden in the United States. Long-term goals are to enhance native clam populations, support local food security, provide ecological and cultural benefits, and promote the integration of traditional ecological knowledge in contemporary resource management and climate change adaptation strategies. The project will complete the first of four steps to developing a clam garden—application of a social-ecological decisions framework that considers both people and their environment in a site selection model for future clam gardens.

Local adaptation and seasonal distribution of Puget Sound herring stocks

Lorenz Hauser, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Dayv Lowry and Todd Sandell, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Puget Sound herring continue to decline, and longevity of the resource will require careful resource management, conservation and restoration—work that requires additional understanding of species populations. The project examines molecular genetic evidence for local adaptation of Puget Sound herring populations by resequencing entire genomes for six stocks. Genetic markers will be used to establish geographic and temporal distribution of genetically distinct populations outside their spawning season. The new information will allow resource managers to better identify causes for specific population declines, anticipate future threats and adjust management strategies to protect population diversity.

Investigating how Salish Sea plankton respond to environmental changes

Julie Keister, UW School of Oceanography; Carol Stepien, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Zooplankton and larval fish are important prey for larger invertebrates, fishes and marine mammals. They are also some of the most vulnerable species to ocean acidification and other environmental threats, including hypoxia and warming. This project will advance understanding of how Salish Sea plankton communities respond to physical and biological changes using metagenomics—the study of genetic material collected from the environment. This alternative to traditional, more expensive taxonomic methods will identify species and capture concrete information on their representation in regional planktonic communities, shedding light on how natural and human-caused factors change the composition, diversity and relative abundance of those communities.

Transmission of harmful algal bloom toxins through the food web

Adrianne Akmajian and Jonathan Scordino, Makah Fisheries Management

Makah tribal usual and accustomed fishing grounds are located in the California Current, a highly productive feeding area for marine mammals, seabirds and fish, but also subject to harmful algal blooms (HABs) that produce toxins such as domoic acid and saxitoxin. During HAB events, associated toxins can accumulate throughout the food web from zooplankton to fish, and even to marine mammals. This project focuses on how algal toxins are transmitted through the offshore coastal food web. The primary goal is to survey for domoic acid and saxitoxin in fish species that are caught in tribal commercial fisheries. The project will also survey the feces of nearshore feeding gray whales and their zooplankton prey. This data collected will inform managers and fishermen on current algal toxin concentrations in harvested fish and identify the potential for human exposure.

Modeling the vulnerability of seabirds to oil spills

Julia Parrish and Timothy Jones, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

When oil coats a seabird’s feathers, it causes them to mat and lose their waterproofing. Because of this and other factors, seabirds are among the most vulnerable animals to oil spills. This project takes a closer look at how oil spills affect different species of Pacific Northwest seabirds. The project employs two independent methods: 1) using historical data to assess the relative abundance of taxon groups in oil spill samples relative to a beached bird baseline data (a method called hindcasting), and 2) modeling the likelihood of a member of a particular taxon group washing up on the shore by using cumulative spatiotemporal data on at-sea distribution, fine-scale ocean circulation modeling, and the known spatiotemporal extent of a given spill. The long-term goal of the project is to create a set of modeling/simulation tools to bound (past spills) and predict the taxon-specific vulnerability to oiling in the Pacific Northwest, given knowledge of spill size, location and timing.

Reconstructing a century of coastal productivity and trophic dynamics from bone specimens

Gordon Holtgrieve, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Christopher Harvey and Eric Ward, NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Part of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem, Washington coastal waters host some of the world’s most productive fisheries, motivating strong interest in factors influencing regional productivity. This project will provide an 80-year-plus perspective on food web dynamics involving harbor seals, that compares changing predator and prey abundances with shifting ocean productivity regimes. Using a novel technique called compound-specific isotope analyses to examine nitrogen isotope ratios in archived seal bone collagen, researchers will assess hypotheses about the role of increasing marine predator biomass on coastal ecosystems.

Developing baseline data on native eelgrass to inform conservation strategies

Kerry Naish, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Cinde Donoghue and Jeffrey Gaeckle, Washington State Department of Natural Resources; Jennifer Ruesink, UW Department of Biology

Providing essential habitat to fish such as Pacific herring and juvenile salmon, eelgrass is an important species that is declining in many areas of Washington. Current ongoing efforts to restore eelgrass, often lack information on population structure and may not fully account for the fact that the efforts are taking place in a changing environment. This project will determine the population structure and the genetic basis of phenotypic diversity in native Washington eelgrass (Zostera marina) populations and assess how genetically distinct populations respond to environmental stressors. The baseline data generated will be used to: 1. make the first comprehensive geographic map of state eelgrass population structure; and 2. describe the relationship between eelgrass population structure, phenotypic diversity, and local adaptation and resistance to environmental stressors.

Effects of ocean acidification on salmon olfaction and magnetoreception

Evan Gallagher and Chase Williams, UW Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences; Shallin Busch, NOAA Ocean Acidification Program and NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Evidence of ocean acidification on shellfish and other marine organisms native to the Pacific Northwest is well documented, but the effects on local fishes have largely gone unstudied. This research addresses a current gap in knowledge about the possible harmful effects of increased CO2 on local Puget Sound fish populations. In a study that focuses on Pacific salmon and sablefish, WSG researchers are finding that ocean acidification can diminish salmons’ ability to smell nearby predators. The investigators expose coho salmon and sablefish to actual and anticipated future CO2 levels and to odorant signals for food and predators. The study clarifies the mechanisms that underlie the loss of smell in coho salmon. It also determines the effects of increased waterborne CO2 on olfactory and navigational functions, both of which are crucial to salmons’ ability to find their way back to their home streams to spawn.

Using an acoustic camera to see how fish respond to seawall habitat enhancements

Jeff Cordell and Jason Toft, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences 

This project builds in part on previous WSG-funded research to incorporate juvenile salmon habitat considerations in the construction of the Seattle sea wall and provide managers with effective options for improving juvenile salmon survival and adult returns. Investigators will leverage Seattle Department of Transportation monitoring, employing acoustic cameras mounted under a kayak to image fishes. The approach will improve and enhance data gathered about juvenile salmon in nearshore urban environments and be coupled with snorkeling surveys along Seattle’s waterfront, conducted during the juvenile salmon spring out-migration period.

Sea School: An initiative to provide vocational training for maritime careers

Brandi Bednarik, Sarah Herard, Caitlin Stanton and Hali Boyd, Grays Harbor Historical Seaport

Washington’s maritime sector contributes about $38 billion annually to the state’s overall economy. However, the associated workforce is aging, with only 35 percent now between the ages of 16 and 39. This project addresses the maritime workforce capacity needs by creating Sea School, an initiative to provide vocational training and outreach informing young people about maritime careers. Sea School connects young people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing maritime training with a route into the industry by increasing the visibility of maritime work, providing free public education events around maritime work and removing barriers for those who cannot afford professional licensing. Sea School cadets are assigned to either the Lady Washington or the Hawaiian Chieftain for training, where they learn skills such as safe line handling, piloting, helmsmanship, emergency response, chart plotting, teamwork skills and communicating as part of a liveaboard crew.

Effectiveness of engineered log jams in providing refugia from heat in salmon restoration

James Helfield, Western Washington University Huxley College of the Environment; Treva Coe and Michael Maudlin, Nooksack Indian Tribe

Engineered log jams (ELJs) are widely used in salmon habitat restoration to deflect streamflow and scour out deep pools that provide cool refugia for heat-stressed salmon. But the effectiveness of these and other salmon restoration measures has not been comprehensively assessed to inform future salmon conservation efforts and improve efficient use of funds. This project assesses the effectiveness of ELJs installed by the Nooksack Tribe along the South Fork Nooksack River intended to support threatened Chinook salmon. At ten experimental ELJs, plus control sites, researchers will measure four key variables: streambed topography, cooling groundwater upwelling, stream temperature, and the density and diversity of fish presence.

Can native eelgrass and Pacific oysters synergistically enhance their environments?

Carolyn Friedman, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Brady Blake, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; Colleen Burge, University of Maryland; Drew Harvell, Cornell University

In the 1930s, eelgrass wasting disease (Labyrinthula zosterae) caused eelgrass losses of more than 90 percent on the Atlantic Coast, and the disease continues to affect beds along the West Coast today. In the Pacific Northwest, eelgrass and shellfish cultures often co-occur. This project focuses on a potential benefit of co-culture: filtration services of oysters to improve the health of eelgrass beds and potentially reduce pathogen loads and increase local water quality. The project will assess the connections between marine disease, shellfish and crucial marine habitats with potential to enhance the ability to conserve and manage eelgrass beds and promote sustainable shellfish culture in Washington State. The researchers will develop and validate qPCR assays to detect specific disease strains of varying virulence, which would provide key diagnostic and genomic resources to the shellfish industry, tribes, researcher, managers and the public.