Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Local Biotoxins and Toxic Bacteria

Written September 30, 2013, published in October 2013, all photos by Kathleen Sayce

With the next razor clam season approaching, this is a good time to review biotoxins and bacteria that are health hazards. First, a historical perspective:  Commercial razor clam digger Ed Chellis routinely dug hundreds of pounds of razor clams per tide, 1930-40s. He said the clam cannery kept pigs and chickens to eat the leftover clam parts. Sometimes the chickens and pigs walked funny or staggered around for days, and sometimes they all died. He did not take clams home for his family when the animals fell ill. 
Bottom line:  Biotoxins have been here for a long time. 

Prorocentrum species are associated with biotoxins in some areas. This genus is common in local waters. On the south coast of Washington, it has not been associated with water-borne toxins. 


At the top of the list of locally common toxins is Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), caused by saxitoxin, which is produced by species in the dinoflagellate genus Alexandrium, other dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, and at least one species of pufferfish. Shellfish may store these toxins to reduce predation; it remains in animal tissues for weeks to years. Poisoning occurs by eating the shellfish. Saxitoxin is water soluble, and is heat and acid-stable, which means that cooking makes no difference to its toxicity.  Alexandrium species are seen regularly along the Pacific Northwest coast, and are common in local waters during warm weather, spring through fall.  Otters, seals and whales have died from high doses of PSP. 

The symptoms of PSP appear soon after eating, and include tingling or burning of lips, tongue and mouth, or other skin surfaces (face, neck, arms, etc.), nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, shortness of breath, dry mouth, a choking feeling, confused or slurred speech, and loss of coordination. Cooking does not affect this biotoxin. I once took a bite of steamer clams that were high in PSP; it felt like fireworks went off in my mouth. I spit them out, rinsed my mouth and dumped the meal; my mouth was numb for a few minutes. 

In extreme cases of PSP poisoning, respiratory arrest shuts down the breathing system, hence the word paralysis in the name. Recently campers on the Olympic Peninsula ate PSP-contaminated mussels, and after one mouthful, one of them went into full respiratory arrest. His companions gave him mouth to mouth until help arrived, and he recovered. If people survive the initial poisoning event with respiratory support, they usually make a full recovery.

Pseudo-nitzschia species produce domoic acid, and locally were responsible for many closures in the 1990s in local waters. 


Amnesiac Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) is caused by domoic acid, a small protein produced by diatoms in two genera, Pseudo-nitzschia and Nitzschia. Domoic acid concentrates in fat cells as it moves up the food chain from diatoms to zooplankton, shellfish, crabs and small fish to larger fish; this is called bioconcentrating. Birds, marine mammals and humans are neurologically affected by ASP. Domoic acid is unaffected by heat or other food preparation methods, and can persist in animal tissues for years following large blooms. This biotoxin may be a relatively recent arrival, reaching the West Coast after WWII in ballast water on commercial ships. In some years it has been a dominant species outside the surf zone in local waters. 

Symptoms of ASP show up some hours to days after eating shellfish, and include gastric upset (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) followed by neurological problems (headache, seizures, dizziness and other symptoms). Death can result; in survivors the most serious problem may be short term memory loss. Recovery from this is so slow that the memory loss is effectively permanent. 


Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) is generally not life threatening, though profoundly uncomfortable to victims. Caused by okadaic acid, and found in two genera of dinoflagellates, Prorcentrum and Dinophysis, the result is diarrhea, which begins within an hour of consumption and lasts about one day. No fatalities have been recorded from known cases of DSP. These dinoflagellates are common in local waters each summer, but are rarely dominant in blooms. 

Dinophysis species are common summer phytoplankton in local waters. This dinoflagellate genus causes DSP in warmer waters, such as in Florida. 


Cyanotoxins are a group of biotoxins produced by cyanobacteria, and include some of the most potent neurotoxins on the planet, found in both freshwater and saltwater. Following exposure, the most common form of death is by respiratory failure. There are many other impacts; cyanotoxins can kill from just skin contact or inhaled fumes as blooms decay. Animals of all kinds can be killed, fish included, and humans. 

Cyanobacteria are widespread; blooms often occur during warm weather in areas where there are high concentrations of nutrients, such as at wastewater treatment plants or lakes. If you see water (particularly freshwater) so thick with plankton growth that it appears to be filled with light green to reddish liquid paint, stay out of the water, and keep your dog out too––it's likely to be full of cyanobacteria. 


Saltwater cholera or Vibrio gastroenteritis is caused by Vibrio species that live in saltwater. In our area, Vibrio parahemolyticus grows in warm saltwater, most abundant in late summer to early fall. Live shellfish held in waters warmer than 20 C (68 F) often have increased numbers of V. parahemolyticus. During cool summers and cool weather cycles, this bacterium is not usually a problem in our area, but when it's warm, then Vibro bacteria can be very abundant. On the east coast, a man died last week from wading in water with high concentrations of  Vibrio vulnificus. He had no skin lesions or cuts, but still took in enough toxins from this bacteria to shut down his internal organs. 

During El Nino-Southern Oscillation Events (ENSO), as for many years during the 1980-1990s, whenever warm subtropical waters reach our coast, Vibrio thrives. It has caused widespread closures in the past. When shellfish are undercooked or served raw, contaminated shellfish cause Vibrio gastroenteritis, or on the skin, infect open wounds and cause septicemia. As with other choleras, hydration support is important; choleras of all kinds can be deadly. Vibro gastroenteritis is a problem anywhere shellfish live in too-warm water. 

E. coli:

Fecal coliform bacteria, Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is found in mammals and birds, and is a common bacterium of human digestive tracts; it is not free-living. E. coli cells can persist for days to weeks in freshwater, but survive less than 48 hours in salt water. Contamination of salt water comes about due to failing septic systems, or from high rainfall events that overflow municipal sewage treatment ponds, or surface flushing of water from livestock areas, or areas of high wildlife concentrations. Normal run off from streams with exposure to oxygen, sunlight and salt water cause E. coli cells to die in estuaries and ocean waters. But high concentrations can occur, and shellfish do take up the bacteria. If raw or undercooked shellfish are consumed when concentrations are high, E. coli causes gastric illness and death. Areas near outfalls from sewage treatment plants are off limits year round due to this bacterium.

Regular sampling helps establish trends. It's common for particular shellfish beds to be closed for a few days after high rainfall events (more than 2 inches of rain per 24 hours) to let the shellfish clear their tissues.  Shellfish growers regularly sample their shellfish, and pay for the samples to be checked by Washington Department of Health. This is a chronic problem for inland marine waters, estuaries and rivers far more than for ocean beaches. Local closures of parts of Willapa Bay are common, for a few days each year, in specific areas. It's also a problem for freshwater rivers, and is one of the main reasons why it's unsafe to eat freshwater shellfish that are wild-harvested from local rivers.

We can all help keep our local waters clean by keeping our septic systems and municipal water treatment plants in optimal operating condition. For private septic systems, this means clean-out and inspection every 3-5 years. For municipal systems, stormwater runoff from streets should be separated from sewage, and inflows from cracks and breaks in sewage collection systems should be repaired to reduce the volume of water that flows to treatment plants during storms and when groundwater levels are high. 

There are two biotoxins, not yet known from our area, that live in the tropics: 


Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP) is caused by brevitoxins, which are produced by Karevia brevis (a dinoflagellate formerly known as Gymnodinium breve and Ptychodiscus brevis), a common component of harmful algal blooms in warm waters. Gastric and neurological illness follows consumption of contaminated shellfish. Some people have been hospitalized with NSP, though no fatalities have been reported. NSP is common  in the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida, where it causes spectacular red tides in salt water. Species of Gymnodinium have been seen here in warm years. 


Ciguatera is a group of toxins produced by Gambierdiscus toxicus, a dinoflagellate of tropical and subtropical waters. Unlike plankton species, Gambierdiscus lives on corals and other reef surfaces, where it is eaten by herbivorous fish. Ciguatera bioaccumulates when those fish are in turn eaten by predatory fish.  This group of toxins include ciguatoxin, maitotoxin, scaritoxin and palytoxin.  These toxins are odorless, tasteless, heat-resistant and unaltered by cooking. Predatory fish at the top of the food chain around tropical reefs are most likely to bioaccumulate ciguatera There are both gastrointestinal and neurological effects; death is fairly common and long term neurological problems may persist for decades. Ciguatera is not yet known from this area. 


When Washington Departments of Health and Fisheries and Wildlife announce beach closures during razor clam season, know that these agencies are monitoring for several toxic species. They close beaches and commercial shellfish beds to protect public health. Most harmful species are more common in warm weather, so spring through fall closures are more likely. The occasional biotoxin will pop up in mid to late fall, or even in midwinter, even in cold wet years. In ENSO years, all bets are off. Biotoxins can appear at any time during these years and persist for months to years. 

Messages go out on regional television stations and radio when closures are announced, including to newspapers and other media. The state agencies post seasons and closures for beaches throughout the state at While no one wants a clam season to be shut down suddenly, these closures come about because one of several biotoxins or bacteria has appeared, and is rising in concentration. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cows Save The Planet––Cows restore soils?

Written July 29, 2013, published August 2013

Several decades ago John McPhee wrote about the exposures of rocks along a highway by interviewing a geologist on a field trip near New York City. That article in the New Yorker magazine became a chapter in a book, Basin and Range, on geology of the eastern US. Later, the book became a section in Annals of the Former World, in which McPhee wrote his way across North America following Route 66. His interview style was effortless to read, taking complex ideas and presenting them easily through the medium of conversations with a series of people, in this case geologists. This remains one of the most powerful ways to write nonfiction, particularly when conveying complex ideas. 

Now another writer, Judith Schwartz, has done the same with carbon management, another complex subject, and in the same manner, in Cows Save The Planet, and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth. Schwartz interviewed range managers, soil scientists, Conservation District staffers, ranchers and farmers, always with a focus on productivity, soil health and soil ecology. 

Large fields where cattle graze at will leads to some areas not being eaten at all, and others being munched very closely. In this field, grasses that have headed up will be left alone. At summer's end the rancher will mow the field to cut down the forage the cows did not eat.  Photo by Kathleen Sayce

Good writing presents complex subjects effortlessly to the reader, thus Cows Save The Planet leaves the reader with a better understanding of how to plow to improve soils instead of degrade them, why soil fungi are so important for soil health in many plant communities, how cows really can improve nutrient recycling and plant growth, why increased glomalin is important for soils (hint: it helps the soil keep a loose open structure, stores carbon, and stores large amounts of water), and how cows and other grazers can improve soil health. Along the way, she discusses the water cycle, the carbon cycle, artificial fertilizers, soil minerals, biodiversity, low-intensity long-duration grazing versus high-intensity short-impact grazing, and leaves the reader looking at the landscape in a completely different way. 

Schwartz makes important points about soil health:  better soil management leads to more carbon and water being stored in the soil, along with improved plant productivity. Today, worldwide, the reverse is happening. Roads, roofs and other impervious surfaces don't help; they block the world's soils from holding water, air and carbon. Not only is there too much carbon in the air instead of the soil, there's also too much water in the air instead of the soil. Most soils are degrading. Changing grazing and farming methods to keep and build up carbon in the soil reverses this trend, and improves plant growth at the same time. It could help moderate climate change if widely applied to the world's grasslands, farms and forests.  

Pacific County and nearby coastal counties are areas where industrial photosynthesis is key to economic health:  Forestlands, aquaculture, fishing, and agriculture are important economic sectors, and all depend on sunlight, healthy soils, and plants. There are many signs that soil health in forestlands is declining steadily. Constant large-scale cutting on shorter and shorter cycles results in increased soil damage, increased soil fungi losses, and reduced tree growth. Knowing that conifers in our area reach their maximum growth rates (as measured by the volume of wood a tree adds each year) at well over one hundred years of age, it's painful to see log truck loads where every single log is younger than our elders, and even those in middle age. 

There are many signs that soil health is degrading. Any time soils stand bare in summer, soil microbes, especially fungi, are hit hard.  When a soil is bare, the opportunity for photosynthesis is lost. In a typical replanted forest unit, it can take more than a decade for trees to completely recover the surface with leaf canopies.  Likewise there is lost photosynthetic capacity on a crop soil that is bare during the growing season. Erosion increases, soil carbon is lost, and soil function depleted.Over crop cycles, key minerals needed for plant health are lost. Add nitrogen to boost plant growth in the face of declining soil health, as has been the standard practice since WWII, and soil bacteria consume soil carbon, particularly glomalin, compost and other forms of carbon. The result is a downward spiral in soil biodiversity and water storage capacity, resulting in a steady decline in plant growth, AKA production, an increase in erosion, reduction in soil water and other nutrients, and associated loss of stream and estuary water quality. So how to reverse this?

Remineralizing with rock dusts is a good start. Use woody mulches over bare ground to protect soil fungi until the next tree crop emerges. Grow red alders and other broadleaved trees and shrubs to quickly cover and shade the soil, and share carbon compounds with mycorrhizal fungi. On grazing land, use high-intensity, short-impact grazing, where tight groups of cows are moved day by day to new grass, to improve forage growth and soil structure, reduce bare ground, stimulate grasses and other plants to grow deeper roots. Plow with a keyline chisel plow to loosen subsoil, instead of disking or turning over the top layer of soil; this preserves soil fungi and soil structure in the A horizon, the top soil layer. Plant a mix of forage species with different root patterns, instead of monocultures of one, to promote remineralization and deep soil structure. These methods have been shown to work again and again in a wide range of climates, from very dry 'brittle' grasslands to humid farms in climates with year round rains. 

How does this benefit aquaculture and related fisheries? Healthy soils have reduced erosion and nutrient loss, and slow steady water discharge. Streams have improved water quality, and downstream, estuaries are healthier. Instead of being hit with large pulses of soil particles and nutrients in high rain events, these materials slowly seep into freshwater, and flow downstream to estuaries. 

For industrial photosynthetic regions like ours, better soil management is a win all for all the industries that depend on sunlight to grow crops, cranberries, vegetables, oysters, fish, timber and cows. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bumblebees in a changing world

Written July 24, 2013, published in late July 2013

In mid July, Dr. Jamie Strange, USDA-ARD Logan Bee Project, who studies bumblebees, taught a half day workshop on bumblebees and a seminar on pollinator declines across North America at Ft Clatsop, Lewis & Clark National Historical Park. More than one dozen people spent an afternoon learning how to work with bumblebees in the field, including safe handling (hint: clear plastic vials, a net and an ice box), how to identify local species in the field, and life cycle information. Participants included park and refuge staff, interns, a college professor, a beekeeper, and local natural history enthusiasts, all of whom share an interest in pollinators and bees. 

Dr. Jamie Strange talking about key bee identification features before sending the class out to catch bees. Julie Tennis, seated facing him, is a local beekeeper. Photo by Kathleen Sayce.

There are fifty species of bumblebees in North America, from Mexico to the northern boreal forests across Alaska and Canada, at low to high elevations, and thirty-eight species in the continental United States. Bumblebees form two distinct populations, living in the east or the west, with a few small areas where some eastern and western species overlap, such as the Black Hills of South Dakota. All overwinter as young queens, who form their own colonies each spring or early summer. In the late summer, virgin queens and males emerge; after mating, queens hibernate for the winter. Only the young queens overwinter; old queens, workers and males die each fall. Bumblebees can sting without dying, unlike European honeybees, but they tend to be placid, calm bees, and rarely sting even when severely provoked. 

As the initial orientation ended, the sun came out and the bees and novice bee collectors immediately went active at Netul Landing, where the class was held out of doors. Five species of bumblebees were collected in less than twenty minutes; many other bee species were seen, including leaf cutter bees and European honeybees, along with butterflies, dragonflies, wasps and other insects. Dr Strange had predicted that Bombus caligulinosus, obscure bumblebee,  would be the common species for the day, but to his pleased surprise, another normally rare species was almost as common, B. californica, California bumblebee. Also found were B. mixtus, fuzzy-horned bumblebee,  B. vosnesenskii, yellow-faced bumblebee, and B. flavifrons, yellow-fronted bumblebee. Bumblebee species emerge at different times of the year; some come out of hibernation in warm early spring weather, but midsummer is a good time to see most of the local bee species. 

As nets were gently maneuvered to capture bees, discussions continued about bee life cycles, when different species are active, and how to promote bees in home gardens: plant bee food plants and house bumblebees.  These bees often use abandoned vole tunnels in the ground, and in the wet Pacific Northwest, may also occupy tree holes, holes in eaves, walls or birdhouses, which led to a discussion on how to remake birdhouses for bees: Small entry holes, under ¾ inch diameter, and filling a bird  house with loose dry moss may help encourage bumblebees to nest in birdhouses. 

A freshly caught yellow-faced bumblebee, Bombus vosnesenkii, a still-common western bumblebee.  Photo by Kathleen Sayce.

Vials with bees were chilled for a few minutes to slow them down, after which they could be handled easily. No one was stung, and except for a few bees that were preserved for study, all the bees survived.  We got close looks at the five species that were active that day, and then watched as one by one they warmed up and flew away. 

That evening Dr. Strange gave a talk on pollinator declines across North America. Bees, butterflies, bats, and birds that pollinate flowers have all experienced declines in their numbers in the past couple of decades, throughout the continent. In many cases, specific pollinators have disappeared from sites, to be replaced by other species. The reasons are complex, but loss of habitat is a recurring cause. Pesticides and introduced diseases and pests also play parts. More than thirty percent of European honeybee hives die each winter. Over last winter, the average across North America was thirty-two percent.  

Vials and cold box, ready to chill bees for a closer look. Photo by Kathleen Sayce.

Home gardeners can help with foraging and nesting habitat for bees. We have many species of native bees, some of which nest in the ground, some in hollow woody stems, some in wood piles. All bees feed on flowers, eating both nectar and pollen. Planting good bee flowers, like sages, mints, penstemons, clovers, native perennials, and even common yard weeds helps our bees.  Avoiding insecticides, especially neonicotinoids, which are especially toxic to bees, is important. In a recent incident in Wilsonville, Oregon more than fifty thousand bees were killed after flowering linden trees were sprayed with a neonicotinoid pesticide to kill aphids. No one got up that morning and said 'I'm going to kill bees today,' the massive bee deaths were unintended. It may take years for the local population of bumblebees to recover. 

Dr. Jame Strange and Nancy Holman look at two very different bee species. Between them is Jamie's traveling bee specimen box, with nineteen North American bumblebee species. Photo by Julie Tennis.

Jamie Strange's research includes regular resurveys of sites to see how bee populations are maintaining themselves. He looks at low and high elevation species, studying their response to climate change. Some species are moving up in elevation. Others are dispersing to new habitats. More often, formerly common species vanish, to be replaced by others. A rare bee with limited geographic range died out in the past decade, and a more common bee took its place. 

There are websites that promote bee and pollinator diversity. Pollinator Partnership is located at, where a field guide to western bumblebees can be downloaded, or a print copy purchased. Xerces Society is one of the oldest insect diversity support organizations; it began a couple decades ago in Portland, Oregon; website These are just two of several pollinator resources on line. 

In my own garden, I plant more native flowering plants every year. Now I'm going to focus more on those flowers that bees feed on. And the next time we make birdhouses, we'll modify a few just for bumblebees.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Update on beach trash:  something is missing!

Written July 6, 2013, published mid July 2013

A few years ago I wrote about numerous yellow rope pieces found on local beaches during trash cleanup days. These yellow ropes were escaping from long line oyster operations after harvest. The ropes were cut between each cluster of oysters as the lines were pulled onboard oyster boats, then the oyster clusters were hauled to opening houses, where each cluster was taken apart and the oysters opened. Yellow rope sections were typically fourteen to eighteen inches long, and were removed from the waste shell, but not all were collected. Pieces in shell piles often ended up back in the bay a year or two later, spread on seed catching beds ahead of natural set of oyster larvae in late summer. From there, yellow ropes floated everywhere:  around Willapa Bay, out the entrance to the ocean beaches, and up and down the coast. Yellow rope has been seen on beaches north of Grays Harbor and south of the Columbia River. 

Piles of plastic materials waiting for recycling, yellow lines in the foreground, and bundles of black plastic mesh bags in the background. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

The oyster industry didn't realize how widespread these rope pieces were on local beaches. Once they realized this, they made some changes. First, several kinds of natural fiber ropes are being tested, including manila and cotton. With natural fiber ropes, they can continue to cut each cluster, and not worry about where the pieces go. Second, many growers began hauling the yellow plastic ropes with oyster clusters intact on board without cutting them up. The used ropes are bundled for disposal right on the boat and the oysters are pried off. The oyster crews also bundle the black mesh bags after seed oysters are removed, so that these too can be hauled out of the bay. 

Bundles of used long lines from oyster beds, coiled and waiting for recycling at an oyster opening house on Willapa Bay. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

On the beaches, the difference in just three years is amazing. During beach cleanups, like the Fifth of July beach cleanup day organized last week by Grassroots Garbage Gang, people used to pick up thousands of pieces of yellow rope. It was normal to find one piece of yellow rope in the tide line every five to ten feet on the ocean beach. Now there's probably one piece every thousand feet or so. That doesn't sound like much, until you think about the tons of other trash those folks are picking up. Bending over one to two hundred times per thousand feet to pick up short pieces of rope sounds tiring just writing about it. 

Other changes in beach trash include a slow shift in fireworks components to more cardboard and paper and less plastic. This is a very important, positive change. Small pieces of plastic are often overlooked, and quickly break into even small pieces, which become biologically active as they break down to microscopic sizes. Fireworks are intended to be destructively ephemeral, so there's no reason for them to be made of long lived plastics. Picking up trash this year, I saw that small parachutes are made of cotton string, paper and cardboard, where five years ago the cardboard section might have been plastic. There's also less plasticized paper, and more glossy paper. Small box fireworks that fountain into the air no longer have plastic tops or bases. I've picked up hundreds of those tiny black cones and tubes in the past from one small box of 50 or more individual chambers. It's a big change, and a welcome one, to see that these fireworks are now made of cardboard and paper. 

There's also been a positive shift in beach partier habits:  More people are picking up their own trash. Wonderful! We want this to continue, and we are trying to make it easy for visitors. Dedicated volunteers hand out bags on the Fourth of July at major beach approaches. Dumpsters are located on beach approaches with banners, reminding people not to bury or burn trash, but to collect and dump it. We treasure our beaches, and slowly, we are teaching our visitors to do the same. 

Post-tsunami debris still comes ashore regularly. The huge influx of large foam chunks last year has been replaced by a steady trickle of water bottles and other containers, wood building debris and the occasional boat. Many portions of our beach have dedicated volunteers who check their sections weekly; they pick up tsunami debris as it comes ashore. 

If you are looking for regular exercise for the good of the beach, get your own quarter mile or half mile stretch. Hundreds of people help on the big cleanup days, and volunteers to help coordinate this event are always needed.  For information about joining Grassroots Garbage Gang, or get your own section of beach, contact Shelly Pollock, phone 642-0033, email 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blackberry Time: Midsummer to Early Fall

Written May 21, 2013, published in June 2013, all photos by Kathleen Sayce

Blackberries are a favorite summer fruit. There are several varieties to chose among that grow well here, including the native Pacific blackberry, introduced evergreen and Himalayan blackberries, and and several cultivated varieties (or cultivars) that were bred for heavier fruit-bearing, larger fruits, and darker, more intense flavors. These include Loganberries, Youngberries, Olallieberries, Boysenberries, and Marionberries. Why write about berries now? Fall is a good time to plant new blackberries in your garden. Their roots will establish over winter, and by next spring they will be growing strongly. 

Himalayan blackberries are in full flower by mid summer, and continue flowering until early fall; fruits stop accumulating sugar by late September.

The starting species:

Pacific blackberry grows naturally in the Pacific Northwest, and is a low-growing, sprawling vine. Fruits usually ripen in midsummer over a few short weeks, and are small and intensely flavored. Unusual among plants in the Pacific Northwest, Pacific blackberries have separate male and female plants; in botanical terms this is 'imperfect.' They also tend to have individual plants with multiple ploidy, or many more sets of chromosomes than the usual two sets. Both sexes have white flowers; males have many more flowers than females. If you look closely at the flowers, you can see either clusters of anther-tipped stamens on the male flowers, or a dense cluster of stigmas, with no anthers, on the female flowers. Male flowers also tend to be slightly larger and showier. During flowering, check plants and note the females, because these will have berries later on. 

Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) arrived in North America in 1885, brought here by horticulturists for fruit. Once established, fruit-eating birds and other animals quickly discovered the large, juicy berries, and began spreading them around. This and most other Rubus species have plants with both sexes in the same flowers––botanists call this 'perfect' flowers. Native to Armenia and northern Iran despite the common name, Himalayan blackberries are more accurately called Armenian blackberries. This blackberry is well established in the Pacific Northwest. 

Red raspberries (Rubus idaeus) are European, and were introduced to North America for their fragrant, sweet red fruits. They are widely grown throughout the continent today. Unlike Armenian blackberries, red raspberries did not escape cultivation so easily, though this species has found its way beyond cultivation in some areas. 

Black raspberry (R. occidentalis) is native to eastern North America, and has a very fragrant black berry that is used to flavor fruit cordials, such as Chambord du framboise. It is  widely grown in North America, as well as other temperate areas around the world. 

Ripening Marionberries go from pale green to red to dark purple over a period of weeks, usually peaking in production in August, when berries ripen every day. 

Hybridizing begins:

Enter 19th Century horticulturists eager to develop vines with bigger fruit, more flavor, and larger crops. They worked all over the world to develop highly productive, disease-resistant brambles for a wide range of climates.  The genus Rubus has hundreds of species. Hybridizing is relatively easy once the genetics are aligned. The base number of chromosomes (N), or ploidy, for the genus is 7. Typical diploids are 2N with fourteen chromosomes. The highest number of chromosomes known for a Rubus is 98. Trivia (or there's a word for that):  Those who study Rubus species are engaged in batology, the study of brambles.  

Breeders in eastern North America began by selecting among native and introduced Rubus species, including red raspberries, Pacific blackberries and dewberries (eastern blackberries, yet another member of the large genus Rubus) for vines that were sturdy, with fruits that were large and flavorful, with larger crops than wild plants naturally produce. 

The starting Pacific blackberry was a female octoploid plant (N=56) named Aughinbaugh. Rubus x 'Aughinbaugh' was crossed with a selected red raspberry. Their progeny were then crossed with an eastern dewberry. In each generation, plants were selected that showed desirable traits, including vigor, tasty large fruit, and increased flowering and fruiting capacity, which all contributed to higher production and more desirable fruit characteristics. 

The 'named' plants to result from this process that are still grown today in the U.S. are Loganberries, first grown in 1883, and Youngberries, in 1905. Youngberries were bred in the southeastern US, and today are widely grown in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while Loganberries were developed in California, and are grown in the west and Pacific Northwest. Boysenberries were developed at the same time, and from the same progenitors.   

Meanwhile, the Willamette Valley became a prime berry growing region and local breeding focused on berries that do well in this climate. 

Loganberries and Youngberries were crossed, and the more flavorful but less productive Olallie blackberry, or Olallieberry, was selected from their progeny in 1937. Pacific blackberries were crossed again with Loganberries to produce the Santiam blackberry in the early 20th century. The Santiam blackberry was crossed with Himalayan blackberry to produce the Chehalem blackberry in 1936. 

Chehalem blackberries were crossed with Olallieberry mid century, and out of this cross came Marion blackberries, or Marionberries, a truly gorgeous, black, flavorful berry on sturdy vines. A strong grower and highly productive vine, it quickly moved into production, and is widely grown today. Notice all the names that are Willamette Valley-based: Chehalem, Marion, Olalla, Santiam. 

Ripe Marionberries are large and dark purple-black, flavorful and full of anthocyanins. 

Modern breeding continues:

This wasn't the end of blackberry breeding. The Kotata blackberry was produced in 1951 and released to farmers in 1989. Slightly earlier to fruit than Marionberries, it expands the berry-growing season in the Pacific Northwest. Batalogical research continues today on disease resistance, vigor, and improved fruit quality. Another memorable bramble may emerge from this work in coming years. 

Black raspberries also continue to be bred and selected for flavor, disease resistance and production in the Pacific Northwest. Many varieties of raspberries are grown in the Valley. 

In other climates, golden and purple raspberries, and other brambles in the genus Rubus are important fruit vines. Cloudberries, Rubus chamaemorus, grow at high latitudes; these berries are red when unripe, and turn gold when ripe. Extremely hardy, they grow above 55°N, with a few populations at high elevations down to 44°N. 

Anthocyanins and cellular health:

Highly colored berries in the genus Rubus are naturally high in anthocyanins [antho-CY-an-ins], which in plants act as photo-protective pigments, screening sunlight from cells to prevent sun damage. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants, and promote healthy cells in animals that eat them, as they reverse cellular damage. These compounds give berries a dark color––the darker the fruit, the higher the level of anthocyanins. Red berries have some anthocyanins; dark red, purple or blue berries have more, and black berries have the most. Similar anthocyanins are found in strawberries, blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries; and again, the darker the fruit, the higher the level of anthocyanins in its cells.

The next time you eat blackberries, or other colorful berries fresh, in pie, cobbler or cordial, you are also eating antioxidants, and promoting cellular health. Cheers!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Coastal Flood Risk Reduction:  Planning in the face of change

Written June 18, 2013, published June 19, 2013

The National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, NDPTC, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) presented a one-day course on planning for coastal flood risk reduction at the WSU-Long Beach Research Station, June 4, 2013. Attended by a class of one dozen professionals and local citizens, the focus was on recognizing coastal flooding risks, benefits of several different types of coastal natural environments, traditional and non-traditional solutions, and the capabilities needed to increase resiliency in coastal communities. The pace was fast, the handouts copious, and the outcome positive.  For those who attended, coastal landscapes will never be seen in the same way. 

Half the population of the United States, 153 million people, is concentrated in its coastal counties. Coastal shorelines have urbanizing landscapes as populations increase. Yet coastlines are by their nature dynamic. We tend to try to ‘fix’ shorelines in a particular shape or position to suit our needs. But dynamic shorelines are going to find their own shape and placement over time, and fighting this process is getting more expensive with each passing decade.  

Flood damages (as measured in billions of dollars each year) are trending sharply upward. As a result, FEMA and NDPTC have changed their approaches to flood management from a focus on structural protection to a broader focus on damage avoidance and community resilience.  Resilience includes a diverse group of strategies, and assumes that as conditions change, solutions will readjust to reflect changing situations. 

The group delved into numerous definitions of risk, but came back repeatedly to the understanding that severe natural disasters can provide opportunities to rebuild communities, revitalize commercial districts and improve natural resilience.  After a quick review of relevant federal laws, which in some cases have precedents that date back many hundreds of years, and a discussion of “no adverse impact,” the class envisioned fully resilient coastal communities, and then moved to a detailed review of processes that impact coastal flooding. 

These processes include land-driven factors, such as rainfall and erosion, and for a local example, rain-on-snow events, which frequently result in flooding in riverside communities. Ocean factors include storms, storm surges, and tectonics. We then moved on to natural and beneficial structures, including marshes and mangroves. On low energy coastlines, barrier islands and mangroves provide very important natural energy buffers from storm surges.  On high energy shorelines, like ours, healthy outer dunes with ample sand supplies on the beach and in nearshore waters are important to maintaining natural energy buffers.  

Resilience was the key idea to which the class kept coming back. A community that adapts to change after damaging events is a community that promotes resilience. Doing things the same old way, again and again, is not adaptive in the face of change. The class formed three teams to work through a Cascadia subduction event, an earthquake/tsunami, representative of a realistic disaster scenario for this beach with resilience in mind. Out of it came three different ideas: 1. to build evacuation structures, 2.  to strengthen outer dunes, and 3. to promote a tax-base local funding solution for desired structures, whatever these might be.  

We looked at retreat plans, accommodation plans, expansion of natural and artificial coastal buffers and ways to reduce risks to coastal communities using all these tools. Land use regulations and building codes came up, along with a discussion about how proactive planning can help communities recover after a natural disaster, or completely miss out on opportunities though lack of response to changing conditions. A review of revenues and expenditures, as with other sections, took the class through several different countries. 

The class ended with a discussion of overarching ‘mega strategies’ developed by low-lying countries, such as the Netherlands and Maldives, and by coastal Alaskan communities. Along the Bering Sea, native Alaskan communities are losing their lands as permafrost melts, and are retreating to new higher locations that wrenchingly, mean a complete change of lifestyle for the residents. 

As an ecologist, this is the first time I’ve taken a class on emergency preparedness that so thoroughly incorporated long term planning into community disaster plans. The presentation is well worth a day’s time for local residents, planners, emergency preparedness staff, and community officials at all levels.  It is thoughtful, thought-provoking and represents a practical way to think about landscapes so that coastal communities have a future in the face of rising sea levels, increasingly severe storms and major tectonic events, such as Cascadia subduction zone earthquakes and tsunamis.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Surf Safety:  Rip Currents

Written June 3, 2013, photos by Kathleen Sayce and Doug Knutsen

Our beaches are visitor friendly, with wide soft sands and a gentle slope from dunes to the tide zone, but the surf zone can be deadly. The surf zone has a complex structure in summer, with layers of sand bars and channels, as many as four or five rows of sand bars. Because of the bars, there are also numerous rip currents, strong west flowing currents that run between the ends of sand bars, fed by water in the channels behind each sand bar. This structure can be seen at low tide, and is almost completely obscured at high tide. The currents are still there and flowing fast even when covered with water. 

From the air, the beach looks placid; however, a series of rip currents are active all along this summer beach. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

Where Rip Currents Form

Learn where rip currents are likely to form and what they look like:  A spot in the surf line where the break is delayed a few seconds, or where foam or brown water (with sand in it) moves seaward as waves move landward indicates a gap in sand bars; the water may also be smoother in these gaps. 

Rip currents flow seaward at one to eight feet per second, or three to five mph. They are typically 30-50 feet wide and can be more than 120 feet wide. Rips flow seaward up to 2,500 ft before completely dissipating. They can be fixed in position, or move hundreds of feet along the beach over a few hours. Beaches with several layers of sand bars tend to have the strongest rip currents––like our beach. Under optimal conditions, a rip current can form every few hundred feet along a beach, as the aerial photograph shows. 

Rip currents are hard to see at beach level, but the breaks in sand bars are not. There's a strong rip between these two sand bars. Photo by Doug Knutsen. 

Safety:  Swim parallel to the Beach

I don’t know a swimmer in the world who can swim against a rip current and win. Know what to do in a rip:  Call for help immediately. Swim parallel to the beach, across the current, until you are out of it. Then swim back to shore. 

The first line of safety is to not enter the water in the first place. If you must go in the water, find quiet back channels and pools behind sand bars. Stay away from the gaps between bars.  In the surf, don’t wade more than knee deep. Strong currents and sneaker waves are less likely to surprise you, or knock you down, in shallow water. 

Many visitors in past years who drowned on our beaches were caught in either a deep back channel behind a sand bar, or in rip currents between sand bars. They panicked, were disoriented, and fought the current. 

In or near the water, stay oriented. Never turn your back on the surf. Know where you are on the beach, and where you entered the water. The next wave could be a sneaker, a much larger wave that runs up hundreds of feet higher on the beach, and knocks down everyone in its path.  If you aren’t watching, you won’t know when it hits, and when you come up, you won’t know where you are. You can be knee deep in water one moment, and waist deep or knocked down the next.  Be very watchful of small children near the water. It’s easy for them to be knocked down by small waves. 

If jumping waves, watch the longshore flow and your position on the beach. Longshore currents can move you from the middle of a sand bar to an end in a few minutes. With the next jump, you go off the bar and into deeper water in the rip. 

Don’t swim near jetties, rocks or piers, where there are fixed rip currents. There’s a rip current off the end of the north jetty at Cape Disappointment State Park where water blasts seaward along the north side of the jetty. Fishing Rocks at Beard’s Hollow also has fixed rip currents; this is a very dangerous area to enter the water because the currents make it impossible to get ashore. Doug Knutzen, South Pacific County Technical Rescue, told me that when the surf rescue team goes in the water between Fishing Rocks and Benson Beach for a rescue, they swim out to meet a Coast Guard boat rather than try to swim ashore due to the strong rips in this area. 

If you must swim, swim with a buddy; never swim alone. Wear a float vest or wet suit to add another layer of safety in or near the water. Either one will keep you at the surface in an emergency, so you can focus on swimming instead of staying at the surface and breathing. 

The red arrows mark the location of rip currents on one stretch of beach, less than a mile, in summer. Note the complex structure, with bars and lagoons, as well as rips. The long-shore current is moving from lower right to upper left, or north to south. Aerial photo by Kathleen Sayce

The tide is always flooding or ebbing on the beach. A flood (rising or incoming) tide is especially dangerous on a sand bar. The channel you waded through to get to the bar when it was two feet deep may be five or six feet deep when you go back. Study it before you enter the water going back to shore. If a current is flowing, move to the middle of the bar and cross there, well away from stronger currents towards each end. 

Pets are vulnerable too

Pets also drown in the surf.  If you are tossing sticks in the water for your dog to retrieve, avoid likely rip current areas and back channels with strong currents. If your dog is caught in a rip current, move up or down the beach away from the current, and call your dog to swim to you. This will encourage the dog to swim out of the current. When the surf is high, keep your dog out of the water.  Dogs are naturally strong swimmers, and more buoyant than humans, but sending them into high surf and rip currents is pushing their abilities to the limit. 

For more information, check the NOAA website online at  HYPERLINK", which has photos and diagrams about the formation of rip currents, safety tips, surf advisories, and links to other sites. 

South Pacific County Technical Rescue posts photos, video clips about rip currents, and safety tips for beach, surf and cliff safety, at  HYPERLINK ""

Doug Knutzen, SPCTR, drove the beach with me to talk about rip currents, sand bar structure, and beach safety. 

Be smart, know the signs of rip currents, and be safe, even on hot days at the beach.  


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Building Dunes Part 1:  Where sand goes from the beach

Written April 21, 2013, published in late April, 2013, all photos by Kathleen Sayce.

Along the oceans of the world, wherever there is surf and sufficient sand, there are beaches. These are dynamic landforms; they shape and reshape themselves in the surf and wind, to grow and recede with the tides and seasons, always on the move.  Sand, waves and wind are central to beach formation. 

Sand in the surf zone and on our local beach has several potential fates. First, in the intertidal zone, it can be drawn back into the water and moved along the beach by currents or drawn out into the ocean by very high waves. We see this in most winters, when high surf removes the wide flat summer beach, and changes it to a narrow slope that starts in or near the vegetation line.  Most of that sand goes into the surf zone and moves north along the beach during the winter. Some of it comes back onshore the next summer in a new location. Some of the sand moves west into deeper water, and stays there. 

Second, some of the sand on the beach blows into the dunes, the vegetated area, where it builds up the form of the dune. There’s a geologic term for this, of course, which is saltation, the movement of fine mineral grains by wind in bounces over a surface.

Originally used as an illustration of black sand on a winter beach, this also shows sand blowing from left to right into the dunes, to build up the elevation and the width of the fore dune––the dune immediately adjacent to the beach. 

In summer, strong northwesterly winds blow dry sand along the open flats and up into the dunes. In winter, with strong winds from southerly directions, sand is also blown/washed into the dunes, some of it carried on salt spray or at the surf edge. I haven’t set out measuring sticks to see which season’s winds (summer or winter) move more sand, but one big storm can deposit six inches of sand on a dune top.  From the air it looks like a water cannon plastered the dunes with sand slurry. The net effect is to build a dune at an angle to both wind directions, one that parallels the beach. 

Third, some sand is used for construction, to sand cranberry bogs, and land filling. It’s usually scraped up near beach approaches and outfalls, and hauled off by truck. In a typical year, about a million cubic yards of sand is hauled off the local beach. This sand moves permanently out of beach circulation and nearby dune building processes, or as permanently as our sand spit stays above sea level. 

Winter storms blow build fresh layers of black sand into dunes over beachgrasses, at Benson Beach, Cape Disappointment State Park.  Next spring these grasses will send rhizomes into the sand and bind it, while their leaves sprout above the new level. 

There’s often a visual difference in summer-wind-deposited sand versus winter-storm-deposited sand.  Summer sands are light-colored, light-weight, and high in quartz and feldspar. Winter sands may include darker, heavier sands, which have iron and manganese grains. Winter sands layer up like dark frosting over vanilla cake, with black sands atop the lighter-colored summer sands. 

One of the striking impacts of Hurricane Sandy on East Coast shorelines in 2012 was the fate of hundreds of miles of beaches. These beaches went away, washed over their barrier spits inland, into the bays behind, or dragged back out to sea. Many were built from sands mined from deeper waters by dredges, and deposited onshore. When Sandy hit, there wasn’t enough sand in the nearshore to keep the beaches or dunes intact in storm surf or surges. Luckily for us, we don’t have this problem.  Despite dams on the Columbia River that trap sediments, and dredging, which usually deposits the sand in deeper water than surf can pick up, there’s still considerable sand in the surf zone along most of our beach.  The proof of this is in the ongoing build-out and –up of dunes along the beach. 

Building Dunes Part 2:  Dunes As Seawalls

We are lucky to have healthy outer dunes and ample sand on the beach and in the surfzone to build and maintain them.  Our dunes aren’t just pretty places to walk and live. These dunes also form a seawall, a protective barrier between our communities and the ocean. Recent tsunamis in Japan and other countries have an important lesson to teach those who live along the ocean:  the higher and more continuous the seawall, the better the protection is for that community from storms and tsunamis. 

There is a second lesson to be learned from the recent tsunamis in Japan:  no seawall can be high enough.  Whatever the planners and engineers estimate is high enough, is probably not. Go higher.  We do not have to do this ourselves with bulldozers or shovels. With ample sand, onshore winds, beachgrasses and sand trapping structures, nature will build the seawall higher. She just needs sand and time.  All the basic aids to dune building are already here. 

Remnants of a wood fence at Benson Beach, Cape Disappointment State Park, placed by the US Army Corps of Engineers for a beach enhancement trial, where dredged sands from the Columbia River Entrance were directly placed on the beach above the tideline to build up an eroding section north of the north jetty. The fencing helps slow and hold sand, but erosion during winter storms continues to eat away at the sand each year. The lower 3-5 miles of beach is one area that is moving eastward and eroding, while most beaches to the north continue to grow up and westward.

Our onshore winds are legendary, and being eyed by wind and wave energy firms as power generating sources. Two introduced beachgrasses grow on the dunes, American and European beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata and A. arenaria, respectively); each species does a good job of binding sand that blows into the dunes from the ocean beach. 

To build dunes up, winds blow the sand up into the dunes, sand fencing or beachgrasses slow the winds at the top, and the sand grains drop out over the crest of the dune. Then beachgrasses grow into the loose sand and bind it.  Low narrow dunes become broad higher dunes over several years. 

Sand fencing has been in widespread use along East Coast beaches for many years. This summer, there will be thousands of feet of new fencing in place on many beaches, to start rebuilding those storm-eroded dunes, badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy last fall. Sand fencing needs some tending, resetting the posts and lifting the fencing every year or so to keep the fencing in the air. Over time, it’s a simple, inexpensive and effective way to build broad high dunes. 

There’s one more problem to attend to:  The gaps in the seawall.  Approach roads that cut through dunes are gaps in the seawall.  Sloughs that drain across the beach through dune cuts are gaps in the seawall.  Dunes lowered for the view are gaps. Collectively, these become access paths for storm surges and tsunamis. Any breach in the dune is a gap in the integrity of the seawall.  

Beachgrassses, sand and time can close all these breaks, if we let nature go to work.  Roads and access paths can go over the top of the dunes. Outfalls for storm drainage and sloughs can go through culverts under dunes instead of open cuts through them. Sand fencing can build up those areas with especially low dune crests.  

Pacific County allows, with the right permits, the maintenance of dunes at 24 ft for ocean views. Having watched videos of tsunamis overtopping a 35 ft high seawall in Japan, I’m inclined to think that our beachside dunes should be much higher.  Eight to ten feet of subsidence on a 24 ft dune produces an effective height of 14 to 16 feet after the next big subduction zone earthquake. Forty feet might be a better target height for our beachside foredunes. 

We can build up this seawall with nature’s help, so that when the next big Cascadia earthquakes and attendant tsunamis hit, we’ll have more protection in place than we have right now. This might be enough to help some of us survive to rebuild after the next big one. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Megalodon: An ancient shark that makes the Great White Shark look small

Written February 4, 2013, published March 2013.  Photos of teeth from a private collection, all photos by Kathleen Sayce.

Many animals that formerly lived on earth have modern analogs, animals living today that look and behave very like those ancient animals, though they might not be direct descendants. It’s as though the giant cats, bears, wolves, and sharks of the world recur again and again, slightly reconfigured each time. One ancient mega-tooth shark, Megalodon (mega for big, odon for tooth) has a small analog in the great white shark. 

Great White Sharks are big as predatory sharks get today, growing to twenty feet long, weighing up to 4,200 pounds (2.1 short tons). [Some older records of much larger Great Whites are based on inferences of size and not direct measurements.] Body shape and weight of these sharks help estimate the size of fossil Megalodon skeletons. Compared to Megalodon, they are in the second tier for size: Megalodon grew to 67 feet long, and a weight of 114 short tons. 

Megalodon lived from the late Oligocene (28 million years ago) into the start of the Pleistocene (2 million years ago), for 26 million years. Great Whites first appeared during the mid Miocene, so both species overlapped for millions of years. Even when young, Megalodon Sharks were so much larger that Great Whites were probably prey. They ate fish and marine mammals when small, but when more than 40 feet long probably had to shift to whales to get enough protein with each meal. Fossil whale bones have been found with Megalodon tooth marks on them. In some cases, the sharks simply bit the whales in half. Megalodon jaws were up to seven feet wide when open, large enough for a tall man to stand inside, so they could easily catch and eat whales.  Today, a Great White Shark can eat a Harbor Seal in two or three bites. The equivalent for an adult Megalodon was eating a Gray Whale in two or three bites. 

Fossil Megalodon teeth have a characteristic wide triangular shape and serrated edge. All were collected near Bakersfield, Cal. and are in a private collection. 

Megalodon teeth were known long before skeletal fossils were found. Sharks grow many teeth over each life, growing, shedding and replacing them continuously, several hundred teeth per shark. Already hard, teeth easily fossilize, and can be found millions of years later. Megalodon teeth are large, up to seven inches from base to tip, and serrated to improve slicing ability. They turn up in rocks, in marine sediments, and in soils all over the world. Initially they were thought to be fossil dragon or snake tongues, and were called glossopetrae, or tongue stones.  During the late Renaissance a Danish naturalist named Nicolaus Steno correctly identified these as fossil shark teeth. 

From these widespread fossils, found all over the world, we know that Megalodon were cosmopolitan, living throughout the world’s oceans. Like all top predators, their presence determined the structure of the marine communities in which they fed. As they grew, they moved from small to large fish, to marine mammals like seals and porpoises, and then to larger and larger whales. 

This Megalodon tooth is almost five inches wide and tall; the largest teeth known for this species are seven inches tall. Next to it, a fossil Mako shark tooth is two inches tall. Great White Sharks have teeth similar in size to Makos, up to two and one half inches tall. 

The first glacial maximum of the Pleistocene, with shrinking oceans, falling sea levels, and expanding ice sheets, also reduced whale populations due to changes in nutrient cycling that affected the entire food web. These changes left large Megalodon adults starved for food, and impacted the warm shallow seas where juvenile Megalodon lived. Many shallow seas simply drained away as more and more water was locked up on land in continental and montane glaciers. Great White Sharks, being much smaller, with less than one third the length and one fiftieth the body mass of Megalodon, adapted to these changes and survived in colder oceans with smaller prey.   

A small tooth (1.5 inches wide) shows the serrated tooth edge that is distinctive to Megalodon, and which gave it good slashing ability. 

The tooth that was photographed for this article came from California, and was found east of Bakersfield by a private collector. At one time the area was a large shallow sea, and it is known for a large variety of marine fossils. So far as I know, Megalodon fossils have not yet been found in Pacific County. If someone has a Megalodon tooth from this area, I would like to know about it, and I promise to keep your name out of the paper. 

However, we can deduce the historic presence of this great mega-tooth shark without local fossils.  For many millions of years this area was under water, first as deep ocean and later as an ever shallower warm sea.  Megalodon Sharks swam over this part of the planet for millions of years. We see modern Great White Sharks as awesome for their size, speed and predatory behavior. Yet Megalodon was a shark that other sharks avoided, including Great Whites, because they too were food for this top predator.