Monthly Archives: June 2013

Champions of Change in Washington DC


Julia presents at the White House Champions of Change ceremony.

Julia Parrish presents at the White House Champions of Change ceremony in Washington DC.

We hope you are all raising your glasses tonight in celebration of Julia and the COASST program receiving the White House Champions of Change award on Tuesday, June 25. You can read Julia’s blog about how it takes a village to make citizen science a success, or for those of you that missed the 6am(!) live stream from Washington DC, you can watch the event on You Tube (Julia begins at approximately 11:00 of the 1:26 video). And if you just want to read it, well, you can do that too:

“COASST started in 1998 with 12 volunteers in Ocean Shores, Washington. Those 12 people were going out on the beach monthly to literally pick up dead birds, figure out what species they were, and report that back to me at the University of Washington.

Now over 15 years later, COASST has 850 people walking the beaches from Eureka, California north to Kotzebue, Alaska and west to the Commander Islands (which are in Russia, right a the end of the Aleutian Island chain). COASST has identified 160 species and has found over 30,000 carcasses identified to species (pretty, geeky, I realize). We’ve used that data to figure what’s going on with fishery bycatch, to document harmful algal blooms, to look at Avian Influenza, to look at the effects of climate warming, and to look at historic use of seabirds by Native Americans as food sources.

COASST is Kathleen Wolgemuth, an 80-year old from Ocean Shores, now battling cancer, still out on the beach every month with her daughter Beth.

COASST is Robert “Olli” Ollikainen from Tillamook, Oregon. An avid Huskies fan (and I hope he’s watching), has literally scooped up the whole town to volunteer with him. And actually made a dead bird float in the 4th of July parade. [laughter]

COASST is Olivia Vitale age 15, started at age 12, surveys with her dad, Don, on Bainbridge Island. And put her first bird find on You Tube.

COASSST is Daniel Ravenel from Taholah, Washington, who works for the Quinault Tribal Nation Department of Natural Resources. Surveys with his dog, Denali when he’s not in the Coast Guard Reserves, coming from a military family.

And what brings those people together? It’s not their age or their race or their ethnicity. It’s not their politics or their education level. It’s not their job or their gender. It’s that they have a very, very strong sense of place. They love their place. They want to know about it. They worry about it. And by participating in citizen science, in rigorous citizen science, they know they can gather the data, they can work with scientists, and together we can make a difference. Because only with that very broad extent, fine grain data, can we solve the environmental problems that face us today.

So science is important. But people are important too. And the world is changing very fast. There are just too many issues and problems for scientists to deal with alone. So we need an army and we need a village.

Last century was the century of “Ivory Tower science,” where you had to have a PhD to be a scientist. But this century, is the century of citizen science. Where everybody –  everybody in this room, everybody who’s watching, everybody in the country, everybody in the world – can be part of a science team and make a difference.”

HAZWOPER Field Training Day 3

For the third and final day of HAZWOPER training, we started the day with Dick Walker himself, on a trip down memory lane. On the conference room table he’s laid out an odd assortment of glass bottles sealed with tape, wrappers, matches, connectors and tanks.  To most people it looks like a trash heap, but Dick and team used to do a lot of these types of HAZMAT clean-ups, several a week, in fact. Methamphetamine Labs.

Liz looks on at the table Dick has set.

Turns out a host of highly flammable solvents, gases, acids, bases and oxidizers are used in the process of making meth, and this kept the Department of Ecology folks busy (too busy) from about 1980-2000. “In houses, trailers, hotel rooms, they were everywhere,” recalls Dick, “sometimes were were still processing a scene and they would come back.” With cold medication behind the counter in the early 2000s, the meth cleanup has all but stopped.

Which means spill response and cleanup can focus on places like our next stop, Fisherman’s Terminal. After several days of reported sheens, no sheens today. We check out two abandoned vessels towed from the north, purged of fuel, and moored at the Terminal, “it’s a lot easier to deal with these before they sink,” notes Dave.

Liz and Chad check out the Des Moines Marina. “That’s just scum,” Chad assures us, “a natural collection point.”

On the way down south to check out a previous cleanup site, we turn around to respond to a diesel spill in Elliott Bay Marina. When we arrive, oil-absorbent boom and pads have already been deployed and have picked up some product (which appears on the material as a pinkish stain). “It’s all about a quick response,” advises Dave. If and when the next large-scale oil spill occurs, we’re now prepared to mount that quick response.

COASSTing in Taholah

Last Friday, Julia and Jane stopped in at the Quinault Division of Natural Resources in Taholah, Washington. Julia, wearing “both her hats” as an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Diversity at the College of the Environment and the Executive Director of COASST had a chance to hear from a host of Quinault Indian Nation resource managers including Joe Schumacker, Ed Johnstone, Daniel Ravenel, Heather May, Mark Mobbs, Larry Gilbertson and Janet Clark.

Non-bird finds: deer, cormorant egg, monofilament ball, toy boat.

Non-bird finds: deer, cormorant egg, monofilament ball, toy boat.

Julia and Daniel take in the views.

Julia and Daniel check out some (live) seabirds.

And we just had to head out the beach for a COASST survey with Daniel (a long-time COASST participant) and Nick Barry (tribal member and wildlife intern from Washington State University). With the sun out, we had ample time to take in the views, discover a “new foot type,” find a cormorant egg, and some debris items, all in a matter of hours. The only COASST find that day? Well, see if you can tell from the photo:

Julia and Nick examine the find of the day. Hint: a tubenose, common this time of year.

Julia and Nick examine the find of the day. Hint: a tubenose, common this time of year.

HAZWOPER Field Training Day 2

Back at it again, Liz and Jane take on Geographic Response Plans (GRPs) on day two of Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) on-the-job training with Laura and David, from Washington Department of Ecology’s Spill Response Team.

Where is the pipeline? Underground. These signs warn: no digging!

This time, we’re not heading out in the truck to investigate and incident/call/emergency, we’re laying the groundwork (paperwork, actually) in preparation for potential incident(s) involving waterways near the Olympic Pipeline. Owned by British Petroleum (BP), the Olympic Pipeline is the largest petroleum products pipeline in the Pacific Northwest which connects refineries in Skagit County to 23 terminals in Western Washington and Northern Oregon.

Our first stop – a wide stretch of the Sammamish. Wetlands toward the north, waterfowl. A boat is definitely required to deploy boom.

First stop: the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s boat launch on the west end of the Sammamish River. Laura and David consult the current GRP – which natural resources are in the area? boat needed? staging area large enough for several vehicles and trailers? what speed is the river flowing? is boom requested – the floating oil absorbent pads used to direct and contain oil – adequate? are there access considerations? could private property nearby be affected? All of these considerations (and more!) are detailed at each site.

David and Laura weigh in on the Sammamish River site.

Like COASST beaches, no site is the same – some have steep banks covered in blackberries, some are known native steelhead habitat (Liz spots some dragonfly larvae under a rock here, at May Creek), some are under freeways, some in the middle of neighborhoods, surrounded by private land. At the end of the day we get to thinking about how COASSTers might be able to contribute to marine GRPs in the State’s effort to document beaches, access points, and natural resources along the coast and greater Puget Sound. Stay tuned!

No stream or beach is ever the same (left to right: May Creek, Coal Creek x 2)

Oregon Trainings a Huge Success

A beautiful view from Bob and Betsy’s new beach (Nye South), looking north toward Gary’s beach (Nye North) and Renee’s (Yaquina Head).

Things have busy around the COASST office lately. In addition to the normal happenings, Liz and Jane have led four Oregon trainings for new COASST volunteers in the past month. With a car full of bird specimens, survey kits, and field guides these two have traveled to Nehalem, Newport, Florence, and Gold Beach to train a total of 55 volunteers. And what a great group of new volunteers!

Hana’s new beach, Harbor Vista County Park, outside Florence, Oregon.

This new cohort of Oregon volunteers have signed up to survey beaches all over the 340 miles of the Oregon coastline. As of now, we have filled all but one of the existing beaches in the Oregon North region and created numerous new survey sites. A huge thanks to all the Oregonians out there who helped advertise and spread the word for these events. We couldn’t have done it with out you! And a big welcome to our new volunteers.







HAZWOPER Field Training Day 1

This week, Liz and Jane are teaming up Horward Zorzi and Dick Walter’s Spill Response Team at the Department of Ecology – Northwest Regional Office for some on-the-job field experience to fulfill all requirements of their 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) certification course.

No, it isn’t part of some new regulation to work with dead birds! This work is funded through a grant from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Ecology, Department of Natural Resources and the Puget Sound Partnership to increase community preparedness and response during large oil spills in northern Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the San Juan Islands. Lots of COASSTers (about 200!) survey and live near these beaches. These are “their” beaches, and come fall, COASSTers will have a chance to receive some extra training (known as the 8-hour HAZWOPER) to assist state and federal agencies in spill response and damage assessment.

But back to the fun stuff. Tuesday we barely arrived at the office before an anonymous call came in about an abandoned barrel on Vashon Island marked “xylene.” Grabbing the proper protective equipment (steel-toed boots required!), we jumped into the response truck with Chad and Dave.

The Department of Ecology Spill Response Team official vehicle: protecting our freshwater and marine waterways.

After a short ferry ride, we arrived at the scene. The barrel is on private property, not the county/city road, so after a quick call to the regional office and then the property owner, we got clearance to proceed. Time to fill out a Hazard Assessment Worksheet (HAW)! Chad and Dave’s gameplan: suit up, test vapors – is barrel intact? If yes, right barrel, test substance inside.

MultiRae sensor does not detect vapors – barrel and cap are intact.

After the barrel is upright, Dave goes in with a huge wrench and a pipette, and brings back a viscous tawny-colored liquid. Pull out the mobile chemistry lab! Dave tests for the presence of oil (it’s mostly oil), water (a little), Ph (about 7), and reactivity (almost none).

Dave and the mobile chemistry lab (right, in the orange toolbox-like container).

The final test? Flamability. “It’s my favorite,” says Dave, priming and adjusting the propane torch, and holding the glass test tube just the right the distance away.

Flammability? Well, sort of…

The verdict? Not xylene. Not even close. Too viscous, not very flammable, and some black smoke appeared after a good amount of heat. “It’s cooking oil,” says Dave, “call the owners, let them know where to dispose of this, and let’s get those paint pens to re-mark this barrel.” Time to call the regional office again and let them know we’re safe and on our way back. Case closed for Chad, Dave, Liz and Jane.

Julia’s Travels to Maine

Greetings from Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine, where I’m spending a week at a citizen science workshop.  The beaches here are bouldery and small – kind of like a combination between Alaska and the San Juan Islands.

The beaches of Maine – reminiscent of some parts of Southeast Alaska.

Don’t know that carcasses would last long here with no sand to grab onto them when the tide goes out.  And it does go out – there’s a 12 foot tidal range here.  Although I didn’t see any beached birds, I did get a gander at some live ones, Black Guillemots, Surf Scoters and Common Eiders bobbed just offshore of Schoodic Point, where I walked every day.  All in all, this coastline is wild and pristine.

Trail to Schoodic Point

The workshop focused on documenting how citizen science can be used in natural resource management and decision-making.  Turns out that we’re not the only bunch of folks interested in creating baseline and monitoring change.  I met Jake Weltzin, of the National Phenology Network, and caught up with COASST Advisory Board member Tina Phillips from the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell.  We all worked together to craft a set of guidelines marrying attributes of the data collection with end use of program information.
For instance, if the end use is scientific monitoring, then aspects of data quality (like a standard method of data collection, and a method of verification) are preferred.  If the end use is as evidence in a court of law, then those same things are required.  Because COASST was started as a way to create a baseline against which oil spills can be assessed, we’ve attained the highest level of rigor.  In fact, we’re a model program others want to copy.
Stay tuned for the final document (it will be a paper in the journal Issues in Ecology) sometime next year.  Don’t know that it will be a page turner (!) but I’m betting it will make lots of folks in the natural resource management community think about how they might use citizen science.  And COASST will be one of the highlights.

Handy Chalk Holder

Use chalk like a pen/pencil with this nifty holder.

Thanks Janice, who surveys the Damon Point East and West, for introducing us to this neat and helpful addition to the COASST field kit: a chalk holder. Most any office supply store carries these portable plastic holders that turn your chalk into a mechanical pencil. “It’s especially helpful in the rain, and for using up those smaller pieces,” adds Janice.

Puffins in Peril

The Atlantic Puffins just can’t get a break.  First, they were so over-hunted for food, eggs, and feathers in the 19th century that by 1901 there was only one breeding pair left in Maine. Now, after ecologists have spent the last century successfully repopulating the state, puffins face a new threat: climate change.


Atlantic Puffins struggle to cope with climate change.

Puffins, like many seabird species serve as indicators of ecosystem health. This spring, 3,500 puffins were found dead on Scotland beaches after strong storms, and survival rates of fledglings plunged in the Gulf of Maine. Experts say that they are not finding enough food to maintain their body weight and feed their chicks.  As ocean temperatures rise, the fish populations shift, meaning the seabirds have trouble finding the prey they need to survive.

These strandings and unusual behaviors by puffins, razorbills, and other seabirds are a sign that all is not well. They are coinciding with warmer water temperatures and abnormally big storms like Superstorm Sandy last fall. Large storms can cause damage to puffin nesting sites, and warmer waters are causing the fish communities to change. Butterfish, a southern fish that is becoming more common in the north, are replacing herring as the primary food source for puffins. Unfortunately, butterfish are too big for puffin chicks to swallow. As a result, chick survival rates are plunging as the adult puffins struggle to find enough food.

Puffin colony

Razor bills and Atlantic Puffin come ashore to breed each spring.

Conservation groups are working to keep the public interested in the plight of the puffins. Puffins are charismatic, adorable little birds that attract more than 10,000 people to their breeding colonies in Maine each summer. The puffin has been held up as a poster-child of seabird conservation because of its charismatic appearance. It is a good reminder for all of us that we don’t need to hunt them to do them harm. The choices we make in our everyday lives–paper bag or plastic bag, drive or take the bus–can have just as much of an impact.

To learn more about this story, click here.


Fisheries and Seabird Mortality

A new study has come out detailing the effects of gillnet fishing on bird populations.  Gillnets, which are designed to trap fish by the gills, will also catch birds. Eyewitness reports are one of the main ways gillnet caused seabird mortality is analyzed. Now a Canadian research team is taking a new approach to analyzing the affects of this type of fishing.

On the east coast of Canada, most fisheries were shut down in 1992 when the stocks collapsed.  This gave ecologists a perfect location to study the effects of gillnetting on the populations of murres and gannets, diving birds often caught in these nets. They compared the population trends between 1968 and 2012 with data on gillnet use between 1987 and 2012, and found that the murre and gannet populations have increased after the decline of commercial fisheries in Canada. This study provides evidence to support the theory that net fishing is harming seabird populations.

Due to the results of this study, the ecologists are suggesting a switch from gillnet fishing to pot-trap fishing for the remainder of Canada’s fisheries.  Pot traps, which allow fish to swim in but not out, are harmless to birds.  In addition, they are recommending Canada establish more marine protected areas in which all commercial fishing is banned.

Read more about this research here.