Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Surveillance Drones (AKA Google Earth Satellites) Tattle on Countries Underreporting Fish Catch

So this is cool: Google earth comes to the rescue again! But first, I'm going to blab about fisheries for a while.

You know what's weird when you actually think about it? Fish are one of the last major food sources that we rely on a hunter-gatherer (ok, a fisher) approach to supply commercial markets. Everything else, we farm, and while we are increasingly reliant on farmed fish, we still gather millions of tons/tonnes of fish protein from the oceans each year.

And you've probably heard that many fisheries (the global stock of one species) are nearing collapse (Figure 1), where their reproduction will no longer be able to keep pace with our consumption. So we gotta regulate, right? Yeah, but it's hard(1)! In addition to the fact that, on a global scale, fisheries management is a tragedy of the commons type of problem (2), in order to say how many fish we can get away with removing from the sea (right? because it's not realistic to to STOP fishing entirely), we have to know how many fish are out there.

Figure 1. Ack! Fishes disappearing! Over the past 60 years, the rate at which fisheries have been considered to have "collapsed" has increased. From Worm et al. 2008 Nature (Diamonds, collapses by year. Triangles, cumulative collapses, inset map shows fish diversity)

This sounds simple but it's not. There are literally hundreds of EXTREMELY smart people, in this country alone, trying to figure out how to figure out how many fish there are. Part of it is biology: Fish live in an incomprehensibly vast (ok, that's hyperbole, we can actually put a number on how vast) ocean that transcends national borders, and populations respond to complex global-ecological factors in natural cycles, like El Nino/ENSO, Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and sweeps week. 

The other part is the human factor. One way we try to tell how many fish there are is by counting the fish we catch and eat. This relies on people telling fisheries biologists the truth - and it turns out that is not as straightforward as it sounds (sensing a theme here?). Many countries don't have the resources to accurately count how many fish they catch, but some that do...still don't accurately report how many fish they catch.

BUSTED! By Google Earth (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Oh, don't worry, FAO people won't come to the UAE to check on our catches, just make a number up! Satellite image of a fishing weir in the Arabian Gulf. This is a passive fishing trap, that strands fish in the trap when the tide goes out, allowing humans to walk out and pick em up.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia, including Fisheries Collapse Hotshot Daniel Pauly, used Google Earth to identify a major source of missing fish reports, weirs in the Persian Gulf (read all about it). So, ok, how big a deal can some fish traps be? Researchers estimated that the 1900 traps they saw from space caught 31,433 tonnes per year of fish! That's six times what was reported. Yeah, that makes it pretty hard to figure out how many fish and crabs are left in the ocean.

References and Miscellany:
(1) Here is where I acknowledge that, similar to every other environmental problem we face as humans, there are those who don't believe fisheries are indeed in jeopardy. Or, to be more fair, this is a contentious topic, with some arguing that projections of collapse are overstated. While I am not a fisheries biologist, I am acquainted with the literature, and the researchers who are, and am firmly convinced that there is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that we are, indeed, at risk of overexploiting most of the resources from the ocean. Here are some resources that I have found interesting, and at least somewhat balanced:

(2) What, primarily literature isn't entertaining enough?! That was a huge seminal paper in environmental ethics! OK Fine, Here is a talking head explaining the tragedy of the commons with cartoons.

Friday, November 15, 2013


I am somewhat ashamed to say that I am officially out of touch. Send me out on an iceberg, please, save yourselves from my contaminating cluelessness! I didn't know about this parody that was clearly made for this blog. But at least, thanks to Wimp, I was familiar with the song/phenomenon it was parodying. Without further ado, I give you, in all caps:


Thanks to Breanna* Sipley, who kindly alerted me to this opus of internet ingenuity.

*In the original version of this post, I got Breanna's name wrong - apologies. But her name is definitely Breanna.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Oh, just some stuff that happened to cross my desk.

I'm feeling like today has the Wednesday-day-after-election-day-and-nothing-I-voted-for-won blah's.  So, I'm feeling like sharing some marine science bonbons.

You're welcome:

First, a really inspired stop motion short of deep sea life as imagined by PES. These rusty tools wish they could be anglerfish! 

Next, did you know not one but TWO oarfish (Figure 1) washed up on the beach in CA recently?  These crazy guys look like eels, but are actually bony fishes, and typically live in the deep (not unlike that can opener in the last video).  Their appearances on beaches is highly correlated with an increase earthquake anxiety in humans. But remember, people, correlation does not imply causality. People also appear to be blown away by the fact that at least one of the fish was "filled with parasites", by which I mean, carrying a heavy parasite load, which, it turns out, might not be unusual for the species anyway. Humans, it turns out, are also filled with parasites (and mutualists, etc)...

Figure 1. Sweet-a** etching of an oarfish - not a leap to say this is actually a sea serpent and scientists have been lying to us.  Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Oh but speaking of parasites, this is horrifying/entrancing. 

The starfish die-off is getting a lot ("Researchers STUMPED"!!! Zinnnggggg!) of ongoing press, and researchers are moving quickly to get it figured out. Why do we care? Sea stars are the poster-child keystone predator. It's not just that we worry about their pretty faces (which are where, exactly?) turning to goo. Being a keystone predator means they have a huge influence on community structure (who lives in the neighborhood). Often they are called keystone because preferentially eat prey species that are better competitors, facilitating greater local diversity by allowing the prey that stink at competing to coexist with the better competitor (which, remember, is getting eaten by the starfish, and you don't want to experience that first hand).

Figure 2. Ouch. This reminds me of that scary story that was told at camp or whatever, where the girl was driving home from babysitting late at night, and something about a guy with a hook for a hand being on the loose, and she gets home after some chase or near miss and gets out of the car to discover a disembodied hook embedded in the side of her car....yeah. Photo Credit: Vancouver Aquarium

OK, that's all I have the brains for now.  Probably because parasites are eating the rest of my brains.  Oh well.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Crossover Field Missive OR You Two-Timing So-And-So!

Notwithstanding the last month's epic publishing rate, I have been mostly absent over the past 6 months. In part, I blame this on a dull field season - I was away from my desk a lot, but with nothing particularly interesting to report. But I have also been drafted to write for the grad student blog, BioDiverse Perspectives, which is stealing some of my blogging juices(1)

Well, the field season is almost done, and what have I to show for it? Not as much as I had hoped, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. But, here are a few notes to provide insight into what I did do:

Numero Uno:
Season opener: I topped 100,000 miles in my trusty field buggy, the RV Grason (Figure 1). It was poetic how I rolled from 99,999 to 100,000 just as I passed the sign entering Anacortes on one of my first days of field work.
Figure 1. RV Grason.  What a trooper! This is from an earlier excursion
where my car ferried 2 sea kayaks to Willapa Bay.

Section B:
This is a post I wrote for BioDiverse Perspectives, if you haven't already seen it, on my field work this year. It gives you a bit o' flave of what the ol' 9 - 5 is like. I'll be appearing there on an ongoing basis in a (only slightly) more serious role in the coming months (years?).

Item the Third:
I listened to a slew of audiobooks on my drive back and forth to the marine lab. Lets see: And the Mountains Echoed (Khalid Hosseini), Still Alice (Lisa Genova), Bossypants (Tina Fey), Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), The Virgin Suicides, The Marriage Plot, & Middlesex (yeah, Jeffrey Eugenides kick)(2). I didn't get through as many as last year, when I listened to all 5 Song of Ice and Fire books, but I feel like I have made something of my life.

Part IV:
Ok I did do some actual work too. I ran a study in Willapa Bay where I tied snails to rebar with fishing line (Figure 2). Why? Because I am a scientist

Figure 2.  Everyone hanging in there? Ha! This is what it looks like when I do science,
it's a real mess. Here I am untangling 30 snails tied with fishing line and trying
to see if they are still alive and/or damaged. Thanks Ryan for the photo!

Ok, fine. I am trying to see whether there were any predators that eat these invasive snails (here: Batillaria attramentaria). So I tie them to rebar and set them out in the mud along an elevation gradient (shallow to deep). The intertidal dogma is that competitors or predators control how deep an organism can live(3). If the deeper rebar snails get eaten more than the shallow rebar snails, that is good evidence that this is indeed the case. I don't want to spoil what will undoubtedly be another thrilling piece of scientific literature, but indeed, in Willapa Bay, crabs eat snails in the deep. Just to be sure, we trapped some crabs (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  Woah! Thats a trapload of crabs!
Witness: Metacarcinus magister (Dungeness crab)

And now, for the exciting conclusion:
And all that driving was for some reason, right? I sure hope so, says the planet choking on my C02. Up at the marine lab, I was conducting mad-scientist research on snails. In my current experiment, and hopefully the last one for the season, I am looking at behavior of a native snail (whaaaaa?!) Littorina sitkana and exploring their reaction to predation cues, much in the line of previous work with invasive snails. So far, it is my scientific opinion that these snails is crazy (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Girls on film! No, not that. Snakes on a plane? Nope, not that either.
It's Littorines on Slides! I grew diatoms on glass microscope slides to see how much the
snails will eat when they smell scary crabs around. These snails had a hunger.

So, there you go, that's what I did on my summer snailcation. Can't wait until the next one! Actually, I can. I can totally wait until then, because, really, that's enough of snails for one year. Time to sit in front of my computer with a cup of coffee for 6 months...aaaah.

References and Miscellany:
(1) Nope, that's a lame excuse and not even true. If anything, it gets me writing more.
(2) Two points if you can tell which were for my book club. 
(3) No, really, it really is a dogma, wikipedia says so.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Mollusk Muzik #7 OR There aint more thing to climb

Re: Vi Hart. Big fan, big big fan!(1) Turns out she likes watching snails, too!(2) And writing tear-jerking ballads about frustrated snail aspirations. 

Vi Hart
"There aint more thing to climb"

Moving ... albeit slowly. If you enjoyed this video, you might also enjoy the prequel. These videos were at the top of my list of results for the search "Crazy Snail".

References and Miscellany:
(1) If you don't know why, watch these. If, after watching these, you still don't know why, we're done here. 

(2) I mean "too" in the sense of "like me" rather than "in addition to doing everything else she does"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On Freeing Whales OR Oh! What Misfortune to be Charismatic Megafauna

As I have previously indicated, I was a big supporter of the Free Willy/Keiko effort in the 1990's. While there are many things from that part of my life that I am happy I can shrug off as "growth", I'm actually proud of my 10 year old, or whatever I was at the time, self, because I think the cause was worthy and the outcome was not a failure.

There have been a few recent attention-grabbing news items focusing on whether orcas should be kept in captivity. In addition to the documentary, Blackfish, there has been an outcry (and OUTCRY) about the commodification of an orca named Morgan (Figure 1). that was supposedly in rehab after being stranded on the Dutch coast. 

Figure 1. Don't worry, Morgan, we're doing it because we love you! And that makes it ok. Photo:

These events have apparently reminded the collective consciousness (the media?) of the only orca for whom we have (so far?) had an attention span sufficient actually follow through on a plan for release into the wild. I really like this NYT video on the history and fallout of that story. Also, Craig McCaw, who knew?

Sorry for the sober interruption of what is usually a giddy exploration of science, folks. We will return to our regularly scheduled programming shortly.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Species species of the Week week #9 OR Artisan Beach Shovels

Hang on to your hats and prepare to be astounded by amazing sea life!

You know this week's tautonym as "The Billion $ bivalve", "The Chlam with the Charisma", "A Hell of a Shell", 

That's right, ladies and germs, this weeks tautonym is none other than:

Mercenaria mercenaria

Sorry if I got your hopes up, it's not my fault! With the rare exception, clams just make for soul-crushingly boring pictures. If I led with that picture you probably would have just browsed away to watch a cat climb into a fish bowl(1)

Ok, so thanks Blue Planet, now everyone thinks that the only cool things in the ocean are stunningly beautiful. But we know better right? Heck yes, we know better! Beauty is on the inside (Figure 1).

Figure 1. ACK No, beauty is not there either! Christ, that's gross! Make it stop, I'm eating my lunch here! 
I'm kidding, I don't think it's gross, and that could very well be your lunch. Not mine, though, I don't eat gross things like that.  I mean, of course, that it's INTERESTING. But not worthy of narration by Oprah I guess. Photo credit: R. Koss, U. Alberta

In fact, you probably already (and if you don't you soon will) appreciate M. mercenaria for the following reasons:
  • The most common common name(2) of this clam is Quahog. If you don't get why that is relevant to anything ever, suck it up and click on the link and get with the times.
  • The large shells make great artisanal, locally-sourced digging tools at the beach! (Figure 2)
  • It's one of the most widely consumed clam species(3) in the US. If you've had actual New England clam chowder, this species is a likely candidate for the gummy bits that make you wonder whether you are actually eating bits of your exercise band from pilates class.
  • It is the state shell of Rhode Island, and, yes, state shells are a thing. And don't act like you're surprised that states have such arcane totems, states got everything!
  • An individual M. mercenaria was dated as the LONGEST LIVED ANIMAL!
Figure 2. I really should be paid for my graphic design skills

So, aside from the list of quasi-interesting marginalia, these shells aren't much to look at.   But I did find a few interesting pictures of what are supposedly Mercenaria mercenaria shells (Figs 3 and 4)

Figure 3. From Roger Williams Univeristy.

Figure 4. From, which you should check out

Notice the cool patterns? That reminded me of a clam that shares the common name of "littleneck" with M. mercenaria.  The Japanese littleneck, which is also called the Manila Clam (Venerupis philippinarum) is part of the same family of clams, and is also important in aquaculture. I talked to shellfish growers a few years ago who were extremely excited they had figured out how to control some of these shell patterns (Figure 5, also, WOAH). And I'm all like, wow, thats so cool, so you can tell if your clams have wandered onto a neighboring bed (like branding cattle!), and the grower was all like, "yeah, I guess, but really it just makes them more appealing at the market." So, lesson learned people, don't be fooled into paying higher prices for a pretty clam.

Figure 5.  Not a tautoym, but indeed a good lesson in why color is not a good character to use to tell species apart - at least in invertebrates

ERRATUM!: It turns out the oldest clam reference is not Mercenaria mercenaria, but another quahog (which makes sense given the arctic distribution). I just assumed (and you know what they say about assuming) that since they said quahog, and didn't give a species...well, serves me right.  BUT it turns out that clam was 100 years older than they thought it was.  Thanks, Hillary B. for providing me with the truth.

References and miscellany:

(1) Ok, now you've gone and done it and off you are on your little voyage down the cat video rabbit hole - enjoy! and don't miss out on Maru.
(2) New blog series? Common common names?  Post it on Tuesday or some horrific day of the week like that? But srsly, there are a bajillion common names for this species, and more than a few synonymized scientific names as well. 
(3) God I thought current mixologists had gone off the deep end - seriously, this is a terrible idea.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

This just in.... Sea stars dying?

It's not often that anything seems like I should post it with any speed, snails don't move that quickly after all, but this does seem to be a story in progress, and relevant to the marine life of the PNW:

Divers in B.C. and off the WA coast have noticed massive die-offs of subtidal sea stars recently.  

Figure 1. I didn't want to shock anyone with pictures of dying sea stars, so this is just a wikimedia photo of a Pycnopoida, one of the species in the die-off.

Here is a link to a post on Echinoblog about it.  Warning, graphic pictures of dead and dying sea stars (including zombie arms that keep walking even with no other part of the animal left! Need future post on autotomy in echinoderms!).

Lots of speculation about possible causes:
  • Low dissolved oxygen?
  • Major freshwater input = salinty stress (it has been pouring in Seattle every night for a week)?
  • Wasting disease?
  • Poachers slicing and dicing or bleaching?
  • Combination thereof?

Mollusk Muzik # 6 OR 10,000 View Celebration Dance Party!

I ran out of songs for a while for this Mollusk Muzic series, but thanks to my dear friend Jan, I noticed that this is close enough to count. Also I [not so] secretly really like Donovan, who, I might add, was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, probably for his recent work in advocating for ocean conservation.  

I have to say that I love this video, because it is clearly the kind of music video I would make if I were to apply myself to using Power Point slide show with timing and soundtrack.

"First, There is a Mountain"

I dare you not to dance just a little bit. 

Also, my blog evidently has 10,000 views as of today!  Hooray!

It's admittedly almost entirely driven by image searches for orcas and Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis.  Never underestimate the value of tags friends!  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Species species of the Week week # 8 OR Tautonomical Beach Adventure Times!

The faithful among you will recollect that months ago I alluded to an upcoming blog post featuring surprise organisms from my trip to New Zealand.  Well that time has arrived!  I went on a couple of stellar walks in the Waitakere Ranges just west of Auckland. On a hike back along the black sand of Karekare beach, I was stunned to see this breath-taking site (Figure 1):

Figure 1. Oh for God's sake, she's going to make us look at more shells.

I know, right?!

Ok, but look more closely (Figure 2): 
Figure 2. Hmm.  This purple slightly depressed globose shaped shell with countershading reminds me of a blog post I wrote once...

HECK YES! Back when I wrote that post about how awesome the aviator snail/Baggins snail (Janthina janthina) is, I didn't ever expect to actually see it. I wasn't even really paying attention, or reading my field guide closely enough to realize I might see it. When I walked out onto the beach and saw them all strewn about like so much flotsam and jetsam, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground long enough to take some photos!

But, lo! What else have we here (Figure 3)?

Figure 3. Why, we have a planar equiangular spiral shell approximately 3cm at the widest diameter, Charming for sure, but, Emily, why do you show us this beauty? That's right, because it's a tautonym!

Oh no f in way!  This lovely segmented shell is that of: 

Spirula spirula!

A cephalopod ("head-foot", people) resembling a squid(1), the organism itself is actually quite adorable (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Tiny!  The shells I found were about 2-3 cm in diameter, which means the actual  S. spirula was much larger than this one.  You can see the internal shell toward the top right of the photo, oriented perpendicular to the camera. Photo from

Unlike most mollusks, S. spirula(2) doesn't use this shell for protection, but for buoyancy regulation. Much like in the external shell of a nautilus (nope, this one), the chambers are separated by septa(3) and connected by a long cord called the siphuncle  (Figure 5, soooo many figures!).

Figure 5. Shell anatomy of S. spriula ("rams horn shell"). The siphuncle regulates the gas pressure in each chamber, allowing S. spirula to maintain neutral buoyancy at whatever depth it is found.
(Image from after Clarkson 1979 Invertebrate Paleontology and Evolution)

The animal usually floats head- (and tentacles/arms-) down, and there is a light-sensing organ on the end of the mantle (above the shell in Figure 4). They live deep (~1,000m) during the day and migrate closer to the surface (~100-300m) to feed at night.  This helps them avoid things with eyes that would like to eat them during the day - like fish. This is an EXTREMELY long daily migration: 90,000 body lengths each way! JEEZUM, that is like a human swimming from Philadelphia to New York and back every night, not accounting for traffic!(4)

Actively swimming this distance would require 1x10^23 bowls of Wheaties(5). How does S. spirula manage without the Breakfast of Champions ("...and so on")? Aha! This is where the shell comes into play: S. spirula can reduce pressure in the chambers of the shell, increasing buoyancy, and the animal can pop up like a scuba diver (well, safely, of course), without having to waste energy swimming. Hopping on the elevator instead of taking the stairs - amiright? There's a theory that Sperm whales use spermaceti to help them sink in a similar way(6).

There's some uncertainty about these guys' range. When they die, the shells often float to the surface and can drift really far. So who knows where those shells on the transcendent black sand beaches of paradise-I-mean-New-Zealand came from? Anyone in NZ want to offer me a postdoc? Worth a shot.

References and Miscellany:

(1) Perhaps surprisingly, at least to me, in spite of how similar this shell is in structure and function to that of a Nautilus, molecular evidence suggests that Spirula is more closely related to other squids and octopusses/octopodes than to Nautiluses, and relatively recent addition to the cephalopods. The shell appears to be an ancestral character that has been lost in many of the other cephalopods, but maintained and internalized in Spirula and in a somewhat altered form in Sepiida (cuttlefish).

(2) Incidentally Spirula spirula (Linneaus, 1758) is indeed the only member of the genus Spirula, all other taxa having been synonymized, lending support to my theory of tautonyms - just sayin'.

(3) Yeah, Philadelphia, you know what I'm talking about.

(4) I think. I'm new at these comparison things that science communication people say are so effective at making numbers less abstract. Here's my logic: I figured 900m vertical distance divided by 3cm body length (figure 4) is 90,000 body lengths. A human is roughly 5.75m, 90,000 human body lengths is ~98mi. But looking around to figure what that people have an idea of that is 98 miles is the hard part, and truthfully, google says it's only 96.3mi, but really you get the idea. Holy Michael Phelps, Batman! Actually, that dude is a sprinter, here is the real long distance heroine.

(5) OK, that number I just made up.

(6) Clarke 1970 Nature. 228:873.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Shameless Serial Promotion OR Lay off, man, I've been busy!

Figure 1. Simbeliebers

I just went to visit my two year-old niece on the East Coast, and when I showed up, she was so excited she ran figure eights around the kitchen table and island (I wish I had an animated gif to add here, but you can probably just imagine one). On the plane home, belted into my own personal 9 cubic feet of space inside a floating tin can, I felt driven to similarly unconstrained expressions of excitement and over-stimulation when I read Dan Simberloff & Co.’s recent TREE review on the current role of invasion science.  Thankfully for my own dignity, nothing squelches feelings of unbridled joy quite so much as sitting in the back of an economy airline cross-country flight (Thank God and Bose for noise-cancelling technology).

So I wrote a li'l piece for the Graduate Student Blog Biodiverse Perspectives.