Salish Sea Research Cruise – Jan 2016

First activity of 2016 is the Team Aquatic Virus’ research cruise in the Puget Sound, from Jan 6 – Jan 11th on board the R/V Clifford A. Barnes (University of Washington). After months of planning, we have identified ~ 32 stations around the Puget Sound where we’ll be looking at SSaDV (and other microorganisms) in compartments that are not easily accessed by divers or scientists working in the intertidal: Waters deeper than 50m, and plankton. At each station, we’ll be doing four main tasks: 1) sampling benthic fauna to see if there are adult or juvenile sea stars present in these habitats, and whether or not they bear SSaDV or other microorganisms; 2) sampling sediment cores to determine the history of SSaDV in the environment; 3) surveying the presence of SSaDV and other microorganisms in virioplankton from areas adjacent to sea star populations; and finally 4) surveying larvae (if there are any) for their microbial ecology. We’ll be following this survey up with dock-based surveys in the spring and summer.

Day 0:

Jet lag in full effect, Ian tried hard to wake up at 7 am but couldn’t… instead waking up at 8. Shortly after breakfast/lunch, Ian was met by friend and colleague Bob Morris, faculty at the University of Washington, who had kindly offered to help procure liquid N2 and allow Ian to use his fine balance to weigh out ferric chloride – a key reagent in Elliot’s work on the boat looking at virioplankton. After locating the dry shipper, which had successfully made it back to Ithaca, emptied of samples, then been sent out to Seattle by Ian’s partner (thanks Zug!) and grad student Tina Tran (thanks Tina!), Ian weighed out samples of FeCl3 and located the rest of the equipment, which had at this stage already been moved by marine tech Brandi to the vessel (thanks Brandi!).

At about 12pm, Jacob and Mitch arrived into Seattle and were waiting at the hotel – and the three (Ian included) went to the dock to unpack, unload, and prepare for the cruise. It was there that Ian met with Captain Ray McQuin, about cruise plans. The weather for the cruise looks exceptional – only partially cloudy, temps in the 40s, and no real winds to speak of. Hopefully. Fingers crossed, as the Barnes is a small ship, and has logged >1000 research cruise since it was first commissioned in 1965.

The team set up all equipment in quick time – securing pumps to the bench, retrieving consumables, and returning bulky shipping containers to the warehouse for storage.


Lab space on the Barnes

Tomorrow the crew depart for a day trip out to the southern Sound, before starting on earnest the following day. The vessel is quite comfortable for its size (65′), but it is difficult to moor or anchor at sea, so the team will be spending each night in port. Having said that, the vessel has excellent accommodations, including a galley, mess, and berthing for 6.

What will we find? First stop is just out of the lake. We will keep this blog posted of our findings in real time!!

Day 1:

The morning started at 6:45 (well, Ian was up at 4am… thanks jet lag!) as the crew met for breakfast and proceeded to the dock at the University of Washington pre-dawn for an 8 am departure. After arriving on the Barnes, the team received a safety briefing from Captain Ray before setting sail. The vessel transited from the UW dock to the lock from Lake Union (freshwater) to Shilshole Bay, which took about 90 minutes, which afforded the team time to adjust to the vessel’s labs, as well as provide amazing just-after-dawn views of Seattle. Fortunately the weather seems to be cooperating – glassy conditions, sunshine, and mild temperatures – fingers crossed it stays like this the whole trip!

After a short transit, the team arrived at their first site. The first station on any cruise is a bit of “where’s my stuff!” “how do we do this” “what comes next?” etc, so usually takes a bit longer than expected. First up, Kalia and Jacob, with the help of marine tech Brandi, performed a Van Veen grab of sediments, which revealed that the bottom was a fairly coarse sediment flat; they found a few amphipods in the grab sample as well – which is the other target of the lab’s research.


After the grab, the team filled carboys with seawater to perform virioplankton sampling via FeCl3 precipitation, and worked out how to do chlorophyll-a sampling, a key biological oceanographic indicator which can be used by other scientists to determine productivity (more or less) at the site. Then, we switched attention to the first benthic trawl to look for sea stars and conspecifics. The wonderful folks at the UW Marine Center had constructed a dredge which contained ~ 1cm mesh and rubber skids, which would allow benthic animals to be skimmed off the surface while keeping sediment to a minimum. After 10 minutes (roughly 300 yards) the trawl was retrieved, and… sea stars! We found 3 Hippasteria spinosa, and, remarkably, one juvenile Pycnopodia helianthoides. Unexpected, since they were very few and far between over the last year as reported by divers, and absent altogether at dive sites in Summer 2015. It’s good to know they’re still with us!

After the trawl, the team performed a plankton tow to look for any larvae, as well as to collect hyperiid amphipods and copepods. The tow was only 15 minutes but contained a wealth of calanoid copepods, hyperiids, but no echinoderm larvae.

After spending about twice as long at the station as anticipated, the ship headed south to Alki Point, which is where lots of disease had been noted in 2014 and 2015 in intertidal populations. There, the benthic grab and water sampling went as planned, as did deployment of the trawl. On it’s way up, however, with about 40m still to go… thwack!… the trawl line snapped. Oh no!


Since our work relies very heavily on this device, the crew attempted to grapple for the dredge, and after 2 hrs of circling, they did snag something, which turned out to be Dungeness Crab trap left over from many years in the Sound. This still provided a cool opportunity to look for amphipods, so Kalia and Jacob worked quickly to grab whatever we could. But no sea stars.

After grappling, the crew and Ian made the decision to return to the dock at Shilshole Bay to pick up another 2 dredges, which were not complete and not ideal, but it is the best that we can do. After an hour of rigging, the vessel headed south to Restoration Point to perform another station – right at dusk. All things went to plan, but the grab took 4 goes, and contained very fine silt – which should have been a warning sign. However, the team proceeded with a rock dredge, which when retrieved turned out to be an approx. 100 kg ball of clay. After a great deal of sifting, the team did not find any new sea stars. But it did provide quite the photo op, reminiscent of dino-dung digging in Jurassic Park!


After a long and somewhat frustrating day, the team headed back to the dock at Shilshole Bay, where they spend the night. Tomorrow – the team heads north to Port Townsend, stopping at [hopefully] 5 sites along the way where disease has been seen. Hopefully we find more Pycnopodia!

Days 2:

The morning started bright and early for the team: an 8 am departure from Shilshoals Marina and heading west to the other side of Puget Sound for our first station. After all the kinks of the first day, operations are now running smoothly. The weather today was overcast, which meant it was coooold – in the 40s, but on the water it feels a lot colder.

IMG_4378Cold morning on the Sound!

Today we hit a total of 7 stations on our cruise track from Seattle to Port Townsend, including stops at sites which previously harbored very large sea star populations or where disease had been noted in 2013 – 2015. At our first 3 stations we didn’t recover any sea stars by trawl, but did find a large array of sea pens, rocks, and shells.

However, at our fourth site between Clinton and Langley adjacent to Whidbey Island, we did recover quite a few Vermillion Stars (Mediaster aequalis) and one star that looked like a juvenile giant pink star (Pisaster brevispinus). Upon close inspection, the vermillion stars all appeared to have some lesions, and the pink star seemed to have quite a bit going on disease-wise – even though it was small.


Vermillion stars, showing some disease signs, including white spots (lesions?) and some missing the ends of arms (rays)

Next, the cruise headed north to a couple of sites off Indian Point and Coupeville, where they found even more stars, including Henricia ornata, and some green urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachensis).

On our last site, we also recovered what looks like a very juvenile Pycnopodia helianthoides


The team is also on the hunt for amphipods, which form the basis of a concurrent and complementary grant. These are sampled by either looking at detritus collected during trawls, or by plankton tow, and so far we have recovered a variety of different taxa, including hyperiids and gammarids.

Overall the day was insightful and many samples were collected. Tomorrow we head even further North in search of more sea stars…

Day 3:

This morning the team set off from Port Townsend after a quick evening, heading north towards the San Juan Islands. Severe losses of sea stars had been reported in these waters by various collaborators, so we are keen to see what lies beneath the waves- and beneath where scientific and recreational divers had reported sea star disease in the last couple of years.


Early morning departure from Port Townsend

First stop on today’s activities was Point Partridge, which is on the northern end of Whidbey Island. This site was chosen since it’s not regularly visited by divers. Unfortunately, our first station was also in the middle of a shipping channel and also a giant mud bank, so we quickly relocated to a station further out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and were greeted by numerous crab pots – a good sign as these are usually where sea stars thrive. After a quick trawl, we recovered quite a few interesting echinoderms in waters ~ 35m deep, including numerous green urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachensis), two sea cucumbers (Parastichopus), and two small Solaster stimpsoni, the latter of which looked in pretty rough shape – they had some kind of white overgrowth and potentially lesions. Satisfied with the haul, the team steamed north for the long trip to Shannon Point. Why not sample at points in between? Well, first it did not appear to be a favorable habitat for sea stars, but also, it is home to a large military facility and we wanted to stay clear.

The weather turned gorgeous for most of the transit – winds very calm and the sun came out, which helped us shake off the chills from the previous day. As we approached Anacortes and Shannon Point, the team was treated to a most spectacular view of the straits!

Approaching the San Juans 

Upon arrival at our site at Shannon Point, we deployed again and recovered several interesting stars – including a Solaster damsonii, two Crossaster papposus, and several Henricia ornata. In fact, we’ve seen Henricia pretty much everywhere, and few look in rough shape.

A short transit later and we performed another station just north of Anacortes, and recovered another suite of echinoderms – no stars, but more holothurians and a couple of green urchins.


Next, we traveled north towards Orcas Island, where we took some time to find an appropriate trawl location, finally finding a sandy bottomed site. It was pretty close to land – in fact, this is the first time Ian has done any work so close to land, which provided some interesting views!


Quite the incline – we are in 40m of water here…

After an attempted trawl in East Sound, the bottom of which is covered in a thick layer of muck, we moved to another site and set up shop. This time, our trawls provided us with some interesting sea stars: for the first time, we saw a slime star (Pteraster), a species which wasn’t reported to be affected by SSWD.

After a long day filled with superb specimens, the cruise decided to head into port at the Friday Harbor Marine Labs, where the team spent a bit of time looking around the dock. Interestingly, they found a large specimen of Pycnopodia helianthoides – a species thought to be extirpated from the San Juans – happily eating some invertebrates.

Tomorrow the team heads to the north of San Juan Island and east towards Bellingham. Hopefully we see more cool echinoderms along the way!

Day 4:

Day 4 started for the team with a gorgeous morning at one of the world’s foremost research facilities, the Friday Harbor Marine Labs, which is affiliated with the University of Washington (owners of the Clifford A. Barnes). Ian had visited Friday Harbor back in 1999 long before starting his PhD work; its amazing that it really hasn’t changed much in that time! The morning was calm – so far the team has enjoyed really nice and smooth weather, making work at sea much more enjoyable!


…begins a new day in Friday Harbor

After a quick transit to the first station, the excellent scientific support technician (Brandi Murphy and Meegan Corcoran) set the trawl into action, which yielded – surprisingly – few echinoderms aside from a couple of Parastichopus. Surprising because evidently there have been numerous sea stars recovered from these waters in the past – could be a fluke of where we sampled, or could be a result of the disease – time will tell.

Next, the team headed north to Roche Harbor, where they took some time to find a non-muddy, non-rocky sandy bottom on which to sample. After a very brief dredge (due to concerns of getting snagged), the team recovered a couple of cucumbers and a single Henricia ornata. Cucumbers seem to be the norm at most stations!

Next, the team proceeded northeast to the top-most point of Orcas Island. After the Van Veen grab revealed mostly mud, we were a little concerned about the outcome of the trawl. However, upon retrieval, the team recovered something unexpected: Two giant skate (ray) egg cases, which were quickly returned to the water, and single specimens of Luidia foliata, and Crossaster papposus, along with more Parastichopus.

On the track to Bellingham, the team performed another station east of the northernmost point of Orcas Island, but didn’t recover any echinoderms. Then, after a transit to Lummi Island (which was never heavily monitored during the disease event from 2013 – 2014), the team found a few interesting Holothurian specimens but no stars.

This cruise has been a real eye-opener of benthic terrain. The bottom of the sound and straits is not only a mosaic of shell grit, mud, sand, and clay, but most of it is not well defined by charts. We tried to hit 30 – 50m depth at each station in sand (according to the charts), but at the last few stations for the day, the ‘sand’ was actually ‘clay’. This poses interesting questions about transmission of the disease: populations of sea stars on the islands are almost isolated from the mainland, since most sea stars have a really hard time moving over fine silty muds.

At the final station, the team was initially excited about the possibility of sea stars, but as the trawl landed on deck it became clear that it wouldn’t pan out…


Giant pile of cake batter (or worse) muds from a ‘sandy’ site (according to charts).

Nevertheless, the team found some interesting specimens today, and sampled bottom sediments for the presence of SSaDV. Tomorrow, the team heads south as we make our way back to Seattle. Overall, we are learning lots about the benthic ecology and oceanography of the Salish Sea!

Day 5:

Day 5 started with an early departure from Bellingham, heading southbound towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca to sample sites on the Olympic National Park [edit: Olympic Peninsula – not the Olympic National Park!]. This necessitated quite the haul for the morning – the vessel didn’t reach Smith Island, about 2/3 the way to Dungeness Bay until 11:30 am. However, the team were richly rewarded for sacrificing station time for transit, recovering a very healthy adult Pycnopodia helianthoides from the trawl. Smith Island was an ammunition storage facility during WW2, and is surrounded by a broad shelf of rocks and sand. Perfect sea star habitat! The trawls were performed in ~ 35 – 40 m of water, which are of course deeper than any recreation diver can go.


Healthy Pycnopodia helianthoides recovered from Smith Island – good to see!

After a successful first haul, the team decided to perform another trawl to see what else they could find. Not quite as cleanly as the first, the team pulled up a couple of holothurians (Parastichopus) and an Evasterias troscheli.


Healthy mottled star from ~ 40m depth

After spending a couple of hours on station, the team proceeded south towards Dungeness Bay, another site which harbored excellent asteroid habitat. During the transit, a rarity in oceanography occurred: The Barnes crossed paths with the Thompson, the other UW research vessel. It made for some outstanding photos!


The R/V Thompson at sea

After a short transit the crew arrived in Dungeness Bay, where the trawl pulled up another large star – this time an Orthasterias kohleri, and well as several Henricia and a slime star.


Elliot pleased with the haul.

Ian hadn’t kept an eye on the time, and realized after the second station that the vessel needed to transit to the evening’s port, Port Ludlow. Still, success with sea stars in the trawls more than made up for the short work day.

After a quiet night in very sleepy Port Ludlow the team transited to the southern tip of Marrowstone Island. The weather by this stage had turned relatively unpleasant – with a 20 kt squall coming from the south. So far the cruise had flat seas and sunny conditions, so this was the first taste of the Pacific Northwest’s conditions as they normally exist. However, despite the cold and damp, the team was rewarded with one of the best hauls of sea stars we’d recovered from the entire cruise:three Evasterias, 14 Henricia and a Solaster stimpsonii. All looked free of disease. IMG_4530Frosty start at Port Ludlow




Next, the crew made its way south to Skunk Bay, where yet again the team recovered unexpected and interesting samples of Dermasterias and more Henricia.


Dermasterias imbricata

Finally, the team moved south to Apple Cove, near Seattle, where as a final hurrah they recovered a sea cucumber (Cucumarina sp) and some ophiuroids.

All stations complete, the team returned to port at the University of Washington’s campus, where they offloaded gear, said farewells, and shipped off samples back to Ithaca. All in all the team collected 634 samples of echinoderms, amphipods and copepods, and learned a great deal about the ecology and biogeography of the Salish Sea. Time will tell whether SSaDV lurks in these samples, but in summation we saw only a couple of ‘funky’ looking animals during the trip – the vast majority were totally healthy.

Next, Ian and Elliot stay in Seattle for a few days to participate in a workshop about sea star wasting being sponsored by the Seattle Aquarium (Lesanna Lahner). It will be good to share our observations!

Edit: You can view the ‘official’ video for the cruise here

Publications from this Expedition:

Hewson, I, Bistolas, KSI, Quijano Cardé, EM, Button JB, Foster PJ, Flanzenbaum JM, Kocian J, Lewis CK (2018) “Investigating the complex association between viral ecology, environment and North Pacific sea star wasting” Frontiers in Marine Science 5:77

Jackson EW, Pepe-Ranney C, Debenport SJ, Buckley DH, Hewson I (2018) “The microbial landscape of sea star and anatomical and interspecies variability of their microbiome” Frontiers in Microbiology.

Jackson EW, Wilhelm RC, Johnson MR, Lutz HL, Danforth I, Gaydos JK, Hart MW, Hewson I (2020) “Diversity of sea star-associated densoviruses and transcribed endogenized viral elements of densovirus origin” Journal of Virology DOI: 10.1128/JVI.01594-20