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UW oceanographer studies Quartermaster Harbor's paralytic shellfish poisoning problem

Cheryl Greengrove takes in the views as the boat leaves the marina. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Cheryl Greengrove takes in the views as the boat leaves the marina.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

As the sun hung low on the horizon, a small Boston Whaler plied the waters of Quartermaster Harbor last week, crammed with scientists and students trying to unravel a mystery.

They stopped at regular intervals along the way, dropping instruments overboard that measured the water’s salinity, its temperature, its turbidity, the amount of dissolved oxygen and its nutrient load. Used to the routine, they bantered easily among themselves, including many cracks about the pizza they hoped to eat that night, after they got in out of the winter chill.

But their quest was serious. Research five years ago showed that Quartermaster Harbor hosts the highest concentration in all of Puget Sound of an alga that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. Cheryl Greengrove, a physical oceanographer and professor at the University of Washington Tacoma, is determined to find out why.

So once a month, for the last three years, she’s taken to the waters of Quartermaster, usually with colleagues and students in tow, drawing water samples with an instrument that measures nearly every environmental variable conceivable. The goal is to try to determine why the long, narrow bay is home to the region’s largest population of Alexandrium catenella, the leading cause of shellfish toxicity on the West Coast.

“Is there something about the environmental conditions that make it a better place for Alexandrium to live?” she asked, as the small motorboat chugged out of Quartermaster Marina.

Her research will answer only a piece of the puzzle. She won’t determine what causes the algae to bloom — which, in turn, produces toxins that concentrate in shellfish and that can prove fatal to those who consume them. With money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, her goal is to simply understand one thing — why Quartermaster Harbor?

“We’re studying the environmental conditions: Why it’s here, what’s going on with the system that’s making it so abundant,” she said.

“We’d have to write another grant to study when it blooms and why it stops. That’s the next step,” she said, smiling.

Greengrove’s research into Alexandrium began in 2004, when she and other researchers got a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to map its cysts throughout Puget Sound. The organism, technically considered a dinoflagellate, spends much of its life as a cyst, tucked benignly in the Sound’s sediment — a harmless presence. Periodically, when conditions are right, it blooms and becomes toxic — and the state closes beaches.

The researchers surveyed 32 sites throughout Puget Sound in 2004 and 2005 and found something that surprised them: Quartermaster Harbor had the highest concentrations and by a large margin — two orders of magnitude higher than any other site.

“The NOAA grant showed us that Quartermaster Har-

bor was a hot spot,” Green-grove said.

Thus began Greengrove’s years of assiduous research in Quartermaster, first with funding from the Russell Family Foundation and now with an EPA grant. Those who work in her field say it’s important research — not only because paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) can prove fatal but also because it’s apparently spreading in Puget Sound.

The first harmful algal blooms were recorded in Puget Sound in the 1940s, when they broke out in the northern reaches of the water body and led to the deaths of three people. Such blooms were not recorded in central Puget Sound until 1978, when a massive bloom in north Puget Sound apparently led to its southernly expansion, said Frank Cox, marine bio-toxin coordinator for the state Department of Health.

That southward expansion has continued, he added. It was recorded for the first time south of the Narrows Bridge in 1988.

Cox, who has worked for the state monitoring PSP for 30 years, said no one knows why there are now harmful blooms throughout much of Puget Sound but said research such as Greenberg’s is critical to supporting the state in protecting human health. Universities, he said, “are our research engines. We don’t have the financing or the expertise.”

“There are lots and lots of questions” about PSP, he added. “I’d like to have a whole lot of researchers out there trying to solve them.”

As for Quartermaster, he added, “It certainly has been one of the areas that has gotten our attention.”

Like most scientists, Greengrove hasn’t rushed to any conclusions about why Alexandrium is plentiful in Quartermaster Harbor. Instead, she said, she’s engaged in classic field research, taking samples that will give her a profile of the bay that is more complete than any — a picture of the bay’s environmental conditions that will lead her and other researchers to some possible answers.

Last week, she and four others visited her seven stations — six in Quartermaster and one in Commencement Bay — that she has returned to over the past three years, located by way of a Global Positioning System or GPS unit that gives her the coordinates of her study sites.

On board were another UW Tacoma professor, Julie Masura, graduate student Alejandro Haskell, UW senior James Zuluaga, Larry Davis, a visiting professor from The College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, and the boat’s captain, Rick Fuller. After hours of dropping instruments over the side of the small boat, most of them were wet and cold, but spirits remained high.

As a late-afternoon sun emerged, turning the water shades of gold, Greengrove grinned at Masura, the alleged source of the weather break. “Julie’s our sunshine girl. That’s why we always bring her,” she said, smiling.

The sampling process is meticulous. The scientists use a $14,000 instrument called a CTD that records data on salinity, temperature and other variables throughout the entire water column — information that can be downloaded directly into a computer. But electronic equipment can lose its calibration, so the scientists “ground-truth” the electronic data, as Greengrove put it, by taking water samples by hand at two depths and for each variable at all of their sites.

The result was an endless stream of sampling, with Greengrove or Masura calling out numbers that Zuluaga carefully recorded into a notebook. The 23-year-old student — an environmental studies major from Tacoma — seemed to enjoy the work, his first foray into the field.

“It’s great to be out here,” he said. “I haven’t done any research at all, and this is where my interests are.”

Other research was also unfolding during the five-hour tour of Quartermaster. Masura and Haskell, a graduate student in environmental engineering at the UW’s Seattle campus, have just begun working on a NOAA-funded research project into the abundance of micro-plastics — small, undetectable plastic fragments that are considered one of the greatest marine pollutants — in Puget Sound and around the world.

Their mission last week was to determine the best method for sampling the Sound’s micro-plastics — an effort that backfired when their sampling device filled up with tiny jellyfish. Masura and Haskell laughed when they pulled their sample into the boat and peeked inside. “It looks like caviar,” Masura said.

While Greengrove said it’s too early for her to know why Quartermaster has such a huge abundance of Alexandrium, she said she does have a theory: “I suspect one reason is because it can’t get out.”

Not only is Quartermaster closed at its Portage end, but also it’s a south-facing bay, which creates another phenomenon: When the tide is going out, the water heads south towards the bay’s mouth, where it meets other tidally influenced waters rushing northeast, past the entrance to Quartermaster Harbor; those other tidal forces work to reduce the outward flow of Quartermaster.

Yet even that is not a complete answer, she noted. There are other south-facing bays, such as Dyes Inlet near Silverdale, where Alexandrium has not been found at similar levels.

“What we haven’t figured out is why it’s here and not there,” she said.

As the boat’s skipper turned the boat around to begin the journey back to Tacoma, Greengrove glanced around her — at the bluffs topped with conifers, the long stretches of beach, the strings of modest waterfront homes — and said her work will continue.

“It appears these blooms are becoming more prevalent, and the question is why. Is it climate change? Is it that there are more nutrients? Are we just paying more attention?

“It’s a beautiful place,” she added. “We want to maintain it.”

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