New article about glass sponge reefs

By Amanda Kahn

Glass sponges are in the news!  A lot lately…  This is fine by me–the more we all know about these amazing deepwater animals, the better.  Maybe one day I’ll have a conversation with a stranger that doesn’t involve me explaining that glass sponges are not the same as “sponges used for scrubbing wine glasses” (though there is such a thing).

Glass Castles in the Sea
Reef-building sponges are giving up their long-held secrets.

by Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Published in Natural History magazine

Anyway, check out the article, which features a lot of the research done by the Leys Lab at the University of Alberta (with some of the work done at BMSC), including how they feed, what they eat, how and where reefs form, how humans may impact them, and why CPAWS-BC is pushing to have them considered for protection.

Studying the globally unique glass sponge reefs

By Amanda Kahn

[Cross-posted on the Students Ensuring our Oceans’ Future blog.]

One month ago, we were busy in the lab at the University of Alberta preparing and calibrating instruments, gathering GPS waypoints, and preparing dive plans. Three weeks ago, we drove and flew to Vancouver Island with our equipment and plans. Two weeks ago, we boarded a ship to study the glass sponge reefs in the Strait of Georgia in B.C.

CCGS Vector

Heading out on CCGS Vector, our home away from home. Credit: A Kahn 2013

The main reef we were studying on this trip was on Fraser Ridge. If you drained the water from the SoG, you’d be able to see the ridge and the reef about 14 km away from Vancouver. Fraser Ridge reef is too deep for us to study directly by scuba (150 to 180 meters deep), so instead we study it with the help of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) ROPOS. ROPOS is piloted and run by the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility (CSSF) and functions as our eyes and hands underwater.


ROPOS, our eyes and hands underwater. Credit: A Kahn 2013

With those eyes and hands, we studied the energy use and water pumping capacity of the glass sponges that build the reef. Glass sponges are really amazing animals—they can move huge amounts of water through their bodies, which are basically modified to be amazing filters. 9,000 liters of water can pass through a single sponge osculum (the “chimney” that water is released from by the sponge) each day! And from that, the glass sponges can feed on tiny particles, especially bacteria. This is pretty unique among animals—most other animals that feed on particles suspended in the water (called “suspension feeders”) can only capture particles that are larger by 10 times or more.  We did a lot of great science while on board the ship, and I’m now at the field station in Bamfield, British Columbia, to work with other sponges.  We will all spend the winter back in Edmonton working up the samples and data collected from this trip.

Glass sponge reef

Glass sponges in a reef–check out all of those oscula! Credit: CSSF 2011

I’m happy to be a part of SEOF because I can feel connected to other folks who are near the ocean full-time, can ask questions about logistics before I arrive, etc.  I’m the regional representative for Alberta and in this post wanted to show that being far from the ocean does not mean that we cannot have access to marine animals or study ocean-related issues.  Logistics may be more tricky than driving down to beach for the weekend to do some intertidal sampling, but it’s definitely doable and totally worthwhile.  Contact me if you have questions about the reefs or if you’re in Alberta and have questions about how you can get involved in the marine science community across Canada.

To learn more about the reefs, check out these videos, compiled by Sameena Sherman, a student from our lab:

River plumes and extra terrestrial food. Or, why the Strait of Georgia can support so much life

by Amanda Kahn

First of all, this post is about extra, or supplemental, terrestrial (meaning land-based, not ocean-based) food–not extra-terrestrial food, which is material for other blogs.

The Strait of Georgia lies between Vancouver Island, where Bamfield is (on its west coast), and mainland British Columbia.  It is a major waterway for ships and is heavily influenced and used by humans through recreation, diving, boating, tide-pooling, discharges, etc., but it’s also a food- and nutrient-rich habitat for all sorts of animals.  It gets a near-equal input of carbon (a measure of food since carbon is necessary for all living things) from ocean-driven plankton blooms as from land-based sources (Johannessen et al. 2003).  I took some photos of one of the major sources of land-based carbon on a recent flight back to Edmonton from Bamfield.

Fraser River plume

Looking out from Vancouver Island toward the mainland, two light-colored plumes in the water indicate something different about the water there. Indeed, these colors arise from sediment and plankton blooms in water coming from the land. In the top right is a large plume that extended far beyond this photo. It comes from the Fraser River. Credit: A Kahn 2013

In the picture above, you can see different colors in the water. The colors result from suspended sediments and blooms of plankton arising from the water’s interactions with land. Everywhere near the coast gets inputs from land, whether from rocks, sediments, and sand right along the coast becoming suspended or dissolved in the water or from rivers flowing in with suspended sediments, nutrients, phytoplankton, and bacteria from farther inland. The Fraser River is the largest source of freshwater and sediments to the Strait of Georgia–up to 73% of the freshwater and 64% of particles (Johannessen et al. 2003). It is responsible for the plume filling much of the strait, in the upper right of the photo above. Near land, there can also be mixing, as shown in the bottom left of the photo above and zoomed in on the photo below.

Nearshore sediment

Looking south, the Fraser River plume (left) and the mixing near islands near Vancouver Island (right) create different-colored plumes of water. Credit: A Kahn 2013

So why does the Fraser River plume extend so much farther than the non-river areas? While part of it involves the obvious water movement of rivers, there’s plenty of wave action on coastlines. It’s related to something I mentioned before–that the Fraser River is the source of 73% of the freshwater coming into the Strait of Georgia. Fresh water is less dense than salt water so it floats on the surface.  Its different density also means it doesn’t mix very well with seawater so it ends up spreading out along the surface of the water.  If you put an instrument in the water that measures salinity, such as a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth sensor), you’ll see a drop in salinity from the river.

The salinity drops considerably within the plume, indicative of the freshwater coming in from the Fraser River.  Credit: Ocean Networks Canada, via Flickr.

The water that comes in with the Fraser River is full of suspended sediments and plankton, turning the water a different color. If you look out on the Strait of Georgia from land during spring and early summer, the peak of the “freshet” (when snowmelt swells the Fraser River and creates the strongest plume), you’ll see water that is green or murky brown relative to more oceanic water. Sediments from the river settle slowly but bring in with them macronutrients (especially silica; Treguer et al. 2013) and micronutrients such as iron–both of which are needed for plankton to grow. As plankton grow, they turn the water’s color from deep blue to a brown, green, or milky blue, depending on the dominant plankton types.

Water color changes dramatically near the edge of the Fraser River plume.  Credit: Kevin Bartlett; via Ocean Networks Canada and Flickr

As plankton grow, they form the basis of a food web for grazers and predators. These terrestrial inputs of food are a big reason why coastal areas have higher concentrations of plankton, and as a result higher numbers and diversity of animals, compared to open ocean areas.  To learn more about research on the Fraser River plume, check out this post from Ocean Networks Canada.

Active Pass

Active Pass. Credit: A Kahn 2013

Johannessen, S. ., R. . Macdonald, and D. . Paton. 2003. A sediment and organic carbon budget for the greater Strait of Georgia. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 56:845–860.

Tréguer, P. J., and C. L. De La Rocha. 2013. The World Ocean Silica Cycle. Annual Review of Marine Science 5:477–501.

Tides and Trails Market now owned by Huu-ay-aht First Nations

by Amanda Kahn

The Tides & Trails Market, the shop on the east side of Bamfield inlet (same side as the marine station), is under new ownership.  The Huu-ay-aht First Nations have purchased it and the cafe next to it.  The market carries a lot of fresh produce and is a convenient walk from the marine station.  It is also the first property in Bamfield purchased by the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, though they run other businesses such as the Pachena Bay Campground and in forestry.  I stopped in at the cafe this summer and the burger was tasty (and the fries were delicious!).  They serve daily specials that are sometimes so local that they’ve come right off of someone’s fishing boat.  Read more about the new ownership (as of April 2013) and check out the Tides & Trails Market and/or the cafe if you need groceries or a warm meal cooked by someone other-than-yourself while doing your research in Bamfield.

Tides and Trails Market

Catch the morning low tide, revive with a warm coffee or an ice cream.  Credit: A Kahn 2012

Journey to the Sea of Glass

by Amanda Kahn

Ever wanted to ride in a submarine?  See marine life such as reefs, sharks, fish, crabs, and whatever else you happen to pass by?  Then check out this contest being put on by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), BC chapter.  One lucky winner gets to go out for 90 minutes in a sub to see the glass sponge reefs in the Strait of Georgia on either October 15 or October 16.  Entrants must be 19 or older and a resident of Canada–check out the website for more details and click the image below to enter!

Bamfield Inn: Then and Now

by Amanda Kahn

The Bamfield Inn is a beautiful inn, also called the Willow Inn, that closed its doors in 2002 to undergo renovations under new ownership.  There is a lot of local back-story regarding the owner of the inn, why it fell into disrepair, how the locals feel about it, etc. that I am not going to talk about.  It is not my place–I am not a resident and I was not present while that took place.  An internet search, however, provides a just view into what the Inn looked like in 1993, compared to how it appears in August 2013.

The Inn, pictured here in 1993. Credit: halflions blog

Bamfield Inn 2013

The Bamfield Inn today. Credit: A. Kahn 2013

The inn is not currently open for business, as the broken windows reveal.  However, the building itself is beautiful and some of the changes since 1993 have brought in some of the unique characteristics of Bamfield.  I love the front fence built from driftwood, the mossy roof that divulges that Bamfield is a temperate rain forest, the covered patio where you can enjoy a view of the inlet even on cold days, and the still-unchanged sign for the inn, complete with a brightly painted fish.  It is wonderful to look from BMSC toward the inn across the inlet and imagine its greatness when it inevitably re-opens someday in the future.  Several other inns are open for business in Bamfield and are also spectacular and unique–I just don’t have pictures of them–so keep on the lookout for them and the iconic Bamfield Inn if you’re planning to have family or friends visit you while you’re doing work/taking classes in BMSC.

Recipes from Bamfield: Peanut butter crackle-top cookies

by Amanda Kahn

I…I don’t even have a photo of these cookies that can go along with this post–they were all eaten so quickly.  Eric Clelland, the very capable research coordinator at BMSC, not only is great at coordinating research but, as it turns out, is a masterful cookie baker.  Eric brought in a tub of these soft, peanut buttery cookies and they were gone within the day.  Really, within the morning.  I am partly responsible.

Peanut Butter Crackle-Top Cookies:

3/4 cup margarine (175ml)
3/4 cup granulated sugar (175ml)
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed (175ml)
1 egg, slightly beaten
3/4 cup peanut butter (175ml)
1 tsp vanilla (5ml)
1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour (425ml)
1/2 tsp baking soda (2ml)
1/2 tsp salt (2ml)

Cream margarine and sugar together, add the egg and vanilla, then mix in the peanut butter.

Mix the flour, baking soda and salt thoroughly.

Add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture (a little at a time), cutting the flour into the mixture with the edge of a wooden spoon. When completely mixed, cover and chill in frig for 20-30 mins.

Preheat oven to 350-375 F (180-190 C).  Form dough into 1″ balls (about 2 1/2 tsp or 15ml per ball). Roll in sugar if desired–Eric didn’t and they were delicious. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350-375 F (180-190 C) for 12-15 mins.

Yield: About 5 dozen. Recipe can be doubled (except for the soda and salt).

Bamfield screening of Blackfish a success

by Amanda Kahn

The Bamfield Graduate Students Society, with efforts spearheaded by president Kat Anderson, hosted the first showing of Blackfish on Vancouver Island last night.  Over 70 people, including members of the community, summer students, graduate students, and researchers attended.  Folks settled on the couches, chairs, and pillows on the floor of the Rix building, ate kettle corn, and learned about the history of Tilikum the killer whale.

Blackfish Poster

The showing was a great success and the Graduate Student Society hopes to do more of these community events in the future.  Check out the movie trailer below and click here to find a screening near you.

What is an endangered species worth? Threshold costs for protecting imperilled fishes in Canada

by Jess Schultz


Credit: Photobucket

For most of us, buying a car is a big decision.  Before signing on the dotted line, we take some time to consider the pros (convenience, time saved commuting, the ability to pick up the opposite sex…) and cons (gas prices, monthly payments, CO2 emissions perhaps). When the pros outweigh the cons, we buy the car.  In other words, we do a cost-benefit analysis.

This process underlies many, if not all, of our rational decisions.  For example, our decisions as a society to conserve endangered plants and animals also come with cost-benefit analyses.  Tragically, we cannot save everything and still be able to feed ourselves, so we must weigh the pros and cons for each species.  In the case of fish, our decisions are becoming increasingly critical.  Many fish species are in severe decline throughout the world – a frightening situation for both ecology and food security (see Limburg et al. 2011).

So how do we decide which species to protect?  In Canada, imperilled species are protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in a 2-stage process.  First, a group of independent scientists (COSEWIC – the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) conducts a biological assessment and assigns a risk status to the species.  Next, COSEWIC’s recommendation is forwarded to the Minister of the Environment, who conducts a series of economic impact assessments and consultations.  Based on the Minister’s recommendation, the species will be listed as recommended by COSEWIC, not listed, or referred back to COSEWIC for more information. Species listed as ‘Endangered’ or ‘Threatened’ under SARA are legally protected from harm or capture.  (For more information on the listing process, check out the SARA Registry.)


Source: Microsoft Powerpoint Clip Art

This seems like good news, however there have been some problems with this process, particularly for fish.  In the first five years after SARA was implemented, 50% of freshwater fish and all marine fish were rejected for listing, but most amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and plants were protected.  In addition, species that were harvested or had social or economic costs associated with them were much less likely to be protected than those without.  It seemed that the decisions to list fish were motivated more by politics and the potential for fisheries closures than by scientific data.

One striking and controversial example concerns the Porbeagle shark.  Although listed as Endangered by COSEWIC, Porbeagles were denied protection in 2006 due to the existence of a very small fishery. In 2005, only two fishers derived any significant income from Porbeagles, and the shark accounted for only 2% of the income of a single fishing village (see Rudd 2009, Mooers et al. 2010 and others).

Credit: NMFS, E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley, from Wikimedia Commons

This begs the question, so what?  It makes sense that we are less likely to prohibit capture and harm of the species that we harvest, sell and eat.  But while economic and political concerns are no doubt important, they must be balanced with the potential benefits of species protection.  For example, sustaining a viable population that we can fish in the future is important, and species protection also contributes to ecosystem health as a whole (which has its own suite of benefits for humans).  Not to mention, we often value the existence of a species just because we like knowing it’s still out there (called the ‘existence value’).

But where do we draw the line?  When do the costs of protection outweigh the benefits enough to justify denying listing a species as Threatened or Endangered?  We wanted to find out.  Specifically, we wanted to quantify the amount of economic impact that would prevent listing a species, and see whether there was an economic ‘glass ceiling’ beyond which species were no longer protected.

sara-listing-probability-graphsOne important finding was that economic thresholds are different between freshwater and marine fish species (i.e. fish had a 50% chance of being listed if the estimated cost was ~$5 million over ten years for freshwater fish, but only ~$90 000 over ten years for marine fish).  In other words, some freshwater fishes were protected despite high socio-economic costs, but not so for marine fishes.  In fact, any marine species that had any associated cost of listing at all was not protected.  These were normally fish that were harvested, or were caught as bycatch in another fishery.  The problem is that harvest and bycatch are two of the most important threats to North American fish populations.  Therefore, those species most in need of protection are also those that are least likely to be protected. 

Another finding was that the benefits of protecting fish species were rarely quantified in listing decisions.  Where benefits were mentioned, it was almost always to state that there was no benefit to listing.  Chinook salmon was the only species for which a non-zero benefit value was mentioned.  In addition, the level of extinction threat did not affect the likelihood of being listed.  By not considering the benefits, a severe bias is created in the listing process.  After all, if we only looked at the sticker price, insurance rates and maintenance costs in vehicle purchases, there would be far fewer cars on the road.

In general, it seems that our decisions regarding the protection of fish in Canada are largely focused on the short-term, regional consequences of listing rather than long-term impacts.  So while the Species at Risk Act is certainly a step in the right direction for fish conservation, we have more work to do to protect the long-term biodiversity of fish.  We need to ask ourselves not only, ‘what are endangered fish species worth,’ but also ‘what will fish be worth to future generations.’

The full research article can be found here.

Citation: Schultz, J. A., E. S. Darling, I. M. Côté. 2013. What is an endangered species worth? Threshold costs for protecting imperilled fishes in Canada. Marine Policy 42: 125-132.

Coming to do research at BMSC? Take the tour, learn the facilities.

by Amanda Kahn

So you’re coming out to Bamfield to do some research.  How does it all work?  Can you order supplies out here?  Are there incubators, shakers, PCR machines, balances, ultrapure water?  Where do you go if you run out of tubes?  Need advice about shipping or receiving a package someone ships to you (after all, who hasn’t forgotten to pack something while coming out to the field?)?  Where is this Rix building everyone keeps talking about??

This is my third year coming out to Bamfield, but I never got a proper tour and so didn’t know the way everything worked.  Fortunately, this year Eric Clelland, the Research Coordinator, is providing tours for students and PIs coming to BMSC to do research.  Tours begin every Friday at 1:00 in front of Eric’s office, which is in the bottom floor of the Rix building (the building that looks like a sea shell).

Rix building

The Rix building at BMSC. Credit: A Kahn 2012

One of the most valuable things I learned from my tour was that there is an equipment inventory that lists all of the equipment available throughout the buildings of Bamfield.  The list is accessible online and is something good to check out before coming to BMSC to see what kind of lab work is possible. (The short answer is: quite a variety!).  You can find the inventory and a lot of other really useful “So you’re coming to Bamfield…” information from the BMSC Research website (specifically, check out this PDF: General Information for BMSC Researchers.