A lifeline for Hood Canal

Getting the goods on bacterial mats and why they cause low oxygen levels in the sound

Come July, when the Northwest sun exchanges its disappearing act for a long-playing role, all seems right with the world. Only it isn’t. As the sun’s rays bake the gloom from our memory, it triggers a chain reaction in parts of Puget Sound that ultimately can reduce water quality. This in turn can lead to disasters such as the massive fish kill in Hood Canal last fall.

From soup to mats
It all starts with algae, or more accurately phytoplankton, that live off nutrients in the surface waters of the Sound. As the summer sun heats up, they multiply and can turn bays and inlets into caldrons of brown soup. When the algae die, they settle to the bottom and become a smorgasbord for bacteria. This process uses up available oxygen and produces hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic for most organisms. The good news: the bacterial mats formed in such situations (likely made up of Beggiatoa spp.) transform the sulfides into nontoxic elemental sulfur. The bad news: the mats are associated with low oxygen levels, and they increase the amount of nitrogen in the water. Which enhances plankton growth, and here we go again.

Of course, making the sun the culprit is like blaming the sky for air pollution. Joel Elliott, associate professor of biology at UPS, and a cadre of students are exploring the real causes and implications of bacterial mats. They have joined an effort coordinated by Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program, a consortium of 30 organizations dedicated to monitoring the low dissolved-oxygen problem in Hood Canal in order to reverse the growing ecological imbalance.

“The first time I saw a description of these bacterial mats was last September in a report about their discovery by the Skokomish Tribe, which was searching for clues as to what was endangering the salmon in their area,” Elliott explains. “We had been studying bacterial mats in Commencement Bay that were living off hydrogen sulfide from the decomposition of leftover wood waste from the sawmills that once lined the bay’s shore. We wanted to follow up on this work by doing research on the bacterial mats in Hood Canal.”

Deep curiosity
With the UPS boat and research equipment in tow, Elliott and members of his marine biology class headed to Hood Canal. After putting their ROV—remote operated vehicle—overboard, they explored down to 200 feet, much deeper than tribal divers could go. Students documented the depth, breadth, and distribution pattern of the bacterial mats and studied how water quality—anything from temperature and salinity to dissolved oxygen and pH—might contribute to the abundance of mats.

Two of Elliott’s students—Matt Lonsdale ’08 and Pam Michael ’07—took the study further. Last February they presented a poster titled “Factors Influencing the Distribution and Abundance of Beggiatoa Bacterial Mats in Hood Canal” at the Pacific Estuarine Research Society conference in Victoria, B.C., where they won the award for the best poster for undergraduate research. Subsequently, Lonsdale, a biology major who plans to earn a master’s and teach at the high-school level, received a University of Puget Sound Summer Research Grant for Science or Mathematics to continue the study.

“I will use the same methods to gather a lot more data over the course of the next year,” he explains. “No one has studied these mats before in the Hood Canal. The phenomenon has been observed in Sweden and Chile, but we are the first to explore it here.”

A healthier canal
Scientists have isolated some of the culprits affecting the water quality of Hood Canal: old, faulty septic systems; nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers; decomposing fish carcasses, and decaying alder trees all end up in the watershed. HCDOP advocates improvement through composting leaves and fish carcasses, upgrading septic systems, and farming organically. Elliott and his students hope their research into bacterial mats will contribute a greater understanding of Beggiatoa’s role.

“My greatest goal is to provide information that helps all the people working for Hood Canal to better understand how these mats fit into the bigger picture,” Lonsdale adds. “Because of this information, I hope we can come to a better conclusion about how to make Hood Canal healthier.” — Lynda McDaniel

 

Alumni council dives in
Taking an active role in the life of their university, members of the recently reorganized Alumni Council Executive Committee (formerly the National Alumni Board) got up-close and personal with starfish, plankton, and other sea creatures in Commencement Bay during their April planning meeting. The group spent a morning with Professor Elliott and Matt Lonsdale ’08 learning about work the researchers are conducting on the well-being of Puget Sound waters.

“Sessions like this help ACEC members become effective ambassadors for the university,” says council President Ken McGill ’61. “Seeing this great work first-hand reminds us that Puget Sound continues to attract the best faculty and students.”

Council members declared the experience fascinating. “As a non-science major, I avoided Thompson Hall as much as possible,” said Michael LeFevre ’00, “but spending a few hours with Joel Elliott made me appreciate what I was missing: Research with a local impact, like the destruction of eel grass in Puget Sound; a chance to get out of the classroom and get some hands-on experience; and of course the opportunity to play with cool, expensive toys, like that remote operated vehicle.”

 

A boat with no name. Help!
As it turns out, the university’s research vessel has never had an official name. “Many have been suggested over the years, but none of them have stuck. Literally,” explains Prof. Elliott. “That would have required me to have the stickers made, pull the boat out of the water, and then stick them on.” To remedy this, the ACEC, er, floated the idea of a naming contest. Got a great name in mind for Puget Sound’s biology boat? What about a companion name for the ROV? Send suggestions by September 1 to ACEC@ups.edu. The winner gets a UPS sweatshirt and, on his or her next trip to campus, a trip on the boat, shadowing researchers as they work.