Research boat scours South Whidbey shores for zooplankton, sea star answers

The research boat Clifford A Barnes

The 65-foot research vessel Clifford A Barnes was operating off the east side of South Whidbey today.

The boat is on a six-day cruise through the Salish Sea conducting zooplankton surveys and collecting sea stars, according to Doug Russell, manager of Marine Operations for the University of Washington. The Barnes is owned by the National Science Foundation but operated under a charter party agreement by the School of Oceanography at the university.

The research is being led by Dr. Ian Hewson, an associate professor with Cornell University’s Department of Microbiology. Russell emailed The Record the following description of the cruise:

“Ship time will be used to perform zooplankton surveys in the Salish Sea region, and to collect sea stars in deeper waters of the region. The purpose of this study will be to survey sea stars occurring below where scientific divers may survey at the bottom of the Salish Sea and Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to also collect and process bipinnaria larvae in zooplankton communities. In both cases we will collect samples of sea stars (and larvae) and survey them for the presence of the Sea Star Wasting Disease-associated densovirus (SSaDV) while onboard. We will also obtain sediment cores from the region to study past incidence of wasting disease and the virus.”

In a separate telephone interview, Russell said the boat is on day two of its six-day mission, but that it’s uncertain how long the Barnes will work on Whidbey’s shores.

“I think it depends on what they find, the weather and their overnight stopovers,” he said.

Russell added that Hewson was very excited about his work, and that this is his first time he’s conducted research in the area.

Scientists have been working for years to understand Sea Star Wasting Disease, a pathogen that causes them to wither and die. Millions have perished but populations are beginning to recover.

The Barnes was commissioned in 1965 as a U.S. Coast Guard vessel at Western Boat in Tacoma, according to UW’s School of Oceanography’s website. It was built with 15 other ships of the same class, most of which remained in service until 1995. The Barnes was stationed in ports from Bellingham to Valdez, Alaska, and was decommissioned in 1982 and then surplused to the National Science Foundation.

It’s nearing the end of its service life, and UW intends to design and build a more capable research vessel to replace it, according to the website.