June 28, 2011 in Region

Some unusual animals arrive in Washington waters

By Craig Welch The Seattle Times
 

SEATTLE – There was the brown booby, the plunge-diving tropical seabird that inexplicably hopped aboard a crab boat this spring in Willapa Bay.

And fishermen have caught spear-snouted striped marlin off the Washington coast and a 6-foot leopard shark in Bellingham Bay. The shark, in particular, is hardly ever seen north of Coos Bay, Ore.

Even Bryde’s whales, which normally range from Chile to northern Mexico, have washed up dead on southern Puget Sound beaches. Twice. Just since early 2010.

The unusual visit of two long-beaked dolphins to waters outside Olympia was just the latest in a string of strange animal sightings in and around Pacific Northwest waters. Lots of creatures that at first glance might not seem to belong have found their way here in recent years.

The reasons are as diverse as the beings themselves. Green sea turtles that wind up stranded on Washington beaches often are presumed to have ridden warm-water currents up from California during El Nino years. Once they land in the cold Northwest, they grow too lethargic to make it home or swim at all.

Climate changes or other disruptions probably are driving some species to new homelands. Invasive critters are discarded in marine waters and sometimes take up residence. Birds can hitch rides on air currents – and, yes, fishing boats.

But bizarre observations also serve as reminders that Puget Sound and the Washington coast are exceptionally dynamic. Central to the region’s environmental majesty is its inherent sense of mystery.

No one really knows what might surface next. Even great white sharks have been caught off the Washington coast and may even be closer than that.

“I would be surprised if great whites didn’t make occasional forays into Puget Sound,” said Wayne Palsson, a fish biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “It’s not that much of a stretch.”

No one knows why the long-beaked dolphins showed up near Boston Harbor in the Olympia area, or whether they’ll survive. But they’ve had a lot of company lately from their home turf – Southern California and northern Mexico.

In addition to the Bryde’s whales, both of which appeared to have been injured by boats, marine-mammal experts late last year and early this year learned about a pair of bottlenose dolphins. The Navy, which had plans to use dolphins for training around Bangor, Kitsap County, said neither belonged to them.

“I think it’s a little bit past just being weird,” said Annie Douglas, a marine biologist with Cascadia Research. “With this many tropical species, I think it’s an indication of something. It’s just not clear what.”

Such puzzlement is common among those dealing with out-of-place creatures.

Bird rescuer Angie Messmer laughed when a fisherman called to let her know he was bringing in a brown booby that had leapt onto his boat from its perch not far offshore from Westport, Grays Harbor County. The birds rarely stray north of Mexico. But it was true.

Dick Miller, of Cle Elum, Kittitas County, still recalls the September day in 1997 when he and a buddy fishing for tuna out of Westport hooked something they’d always associated with Mexico.

“We both were just flabbergasted,” he said. “We’d barely put in the first lines, when it took off. We knew it was a marlin as soon as it jumped. It was great.”

By the time they hit shore, television crews had arrived.

Steve Jeffries, a marine-mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said these anomalies often occur during natural weather fluctuations, like the shift to warmer sea-surface temperatures associated with El Niño. That can create warm-water highways that draw creatures far from home.

In El Niño years, Puget Sound anglers grouse about having to drop their bait below schools of mackerel to catch salmon. More than once, fishermen have reeled in a creature more common to Hawaii – the mola mola, also known as ocean sunfish, an odd beast that couldn’t seem more out of place in the Northwest.

“It’s taller than it is long, and almost circular and has no tail,” said Ted Pietsch, professor and curator of the fish collection shared by the University of Washington and the Burke Museum. “They’re called sunfish because they’re often found floating on the surface.”

Julia Parrish, professor and seabird ecologist at the UW, said some species actually just get lost. That’s how adaptation sometimes starts.

“Lots of organisms expand their range by straying,” Parrish said. “Usually there’s an advance guard of a particular few. Usually they’re young. It’s not that they know what they’re doing. But sometimes they get lost and end up in a good place.”

She recalls when it was extremely rare to see even a few brown pelicans along the Washington coast. Now they’re all over the mouth of the Columbia River. She suspects climate changes play a role. But other factors are at work, too.

In the 1990s, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed a military team to drive Caspian terns off an island in the river, because some feared they were eating too many endangered salmon. Now brown pelicans and double-breasted cormorants have taken up residence on that island, which provides a buffet of anchovies, sardines and other small fish, including salmon smolts.

Other times, though, it’s not clear what the animals are up to. Take, for example, the wild movements of Humboldt squid. Over the decades, these gluttonous subtropical creatures showed up from time to time as far north as California, never more so than in the late 1930s.

Then in the mid-2000s, they began arriving in great waves, eventually making it as far north as Southeast Alaska – even finding their way to hard-to-reach areas like Vashon Island. In 2009, Humboldt squid carcasses littered beaches along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“I had about a hundred wash in on one tide,” said Pat McMahon, curator emeritus at the Seattle Aquarium, who has a beach house along the Strait.

Then, just like that, they were gone.

“We haven’t really seen any in the last year or two,” said John Field, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz, Calif. “We don’t really know why.”

And sometimes it’s not the weird visitors that cause excitement, but the evidence of something many thought was gone.

Two years ago, documentary filmmaker Florian Graner happened to be on the water near San Juan Island with his video camera when several of the world’s second-largest fish swam by – basking sharks, which can reach 30 feet or more.

Basking sharks used to be common here, but Canada decades earlier had placed a bounty on them because the sharks were a nuisance for salmon gill-netters. Fishermen equipped boats with blades and rammed the sharks until the population was decimated.

“So I tethered the boat to myself and just hopped in,” Graner said.

And just like that, he caught video of a fish species many experts hadn’t glimpsed in Puget Sound in decades.


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