'Sea Squirts' Slime Puget Sound A slug-like creature is damaging the ecosystem of Puget Sound. Certain species of so-called "sea squirts" are stubbornly multiplying, and other sea life are being crowded out. A group of volunteers is working to clear them.
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'Sea Squirts' Slime Puget Sound

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'Sea Squirts' Slime Puget Sound

'Sea Squirts' Slime Puget Sound

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There's an evil presence lurking in the cold waters off the Pacific Northwest; gelatinous six-inch long blobs of goo, maybe millions of them. They're known as tunicates. And no one is sure exactly where they came from, just that they want them gone. Well, Janna Nichols is doing what she can. She's been leading a motley crew of divers, armed with spatulas and old pieces of pipe, hoping to remove the pernicious blobs.

Janna Nichols joins us now from Vancouver, Washington, just a little north of Portland.

Hi, Janna.

Ms. JANNA NICHOLS (Marine Educator): Hey.

BURBANK: So describe these tunicates for someone who's never seen one. What do they look like?

Ms. NICHOLS: They can be anywhere from about an inch to maximum size of about six inches. They are cylindrical shaped, clear, with two little siphons on the top.

BURBANK: So that seems - there are lots of weird sort of gooey things that live, you know, attached to rocks and old sunken ships down in the deep. Why are these tunicates so hated? What's so scary about them?

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, the problem with tunicates - and there's actually three invasive ones that Washington is dealing with right now - is that they have no predators. A species that comes from a different place that's transplanted here doesn't have anybody that eats them. And so they take over underwater real estate, basically, and they crowd out the native species.

BURBANK: So you've actually been underwater with them. What does it look like down there? Is it just a - like a sea of these little guys waving in the water or what's it look like?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NICHOLS: Pretty much. The first time that I encountered these, by the time we got down to about 40 feet, which is roughly about where these start, it was pretty dark. So it's kind of creepy. And you've got your dive lights - this big flashlight thing that you're shining around - and soon we came across a clump of them. So excited to see these. And then we started kind of looking around with our dive lights and they were everywhere. And we swam deeper, and deeper, and deeper, and they were covering the ocean floor, all over the place. And they kind of were Star Trekkie because they kind of looked like they have a life of their own. They kind shrunk down and moved around just a little bit. Remember, they're attached at the base. It's just kind of these big long cylinder things.

BURBANK: Sort of like those fur balls...

Ms. NICHOLS: I was going to say...

BURBANK: ...in "Star Trek?"

Ms. NICHOLS: ...it's like those Tribbles, for "Star Trek," right. Yeah. They're all over.

BURBANK: So we don't know exactly where these come from. But what's the best guess?

Ms. NICHOLS: Couple of best guesses. One is ballast water, that's a popular theory for invasive species. Ships from overseas come, take on water in their homeports, and they come here. And they're not supposed release the water in our waters. Another theory is that they came from imported shellfish stock. It's just unknown, and all we know is they're here and we got to deal with them.

BURBANK: So what regions doe these naturally occur? Is it over on the other side of the Pacific, or where is it at?

Ms. NICHOLS: Yeah. The ones, the particular ones that you and I are talking about today, came from, I believe, Asia area.

BURBANK: So you've been kind of leading this, you know, team of hastily assembled divers with a bunch of - I read in the paper - makeshift tools. Someone brought a barbecue - barbecue tongs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: And you guys are sort of doing battle with them. How's that working out for you?

Ms. NICHOLS: It's working out good. However, we found that the most effective tool for removing these so far has been your hand.

BURBANK: So does like one guy get down there with like a whole special, you know, arsenal of weapons he'd made that just didn't even work and then he was just 50 feet below the surface looking kind of like a doofus?

Ms. NICHOLS: He had like PVC pipe with a dowel, a wooden dowel that he was going to use to push them in, or suck them off, or do something. Well, what happened is the wood swelled up underwater, and pretty soon it just jammed inside his PVC tube. And he was out of luck.

BURBANK: Is there any part of you that feels maybe a little bit bad?

Ms. NICHOLS: Um, no.

BURBANK: Janna Nichols joining us from Vancouver, Washington. She and some of her diving friends have been doing battle with tunicates, a sort of blob-like creature that's been showing up in the cold waters in the Pacific Northwest.

Janna, thanks for coming on DAY To DAY.

Ms. NICHOLS: You bet.

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