SEATTLE — The same gelatinous sea creatures that clogged the intake at California's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant last spring have shown up this winter on the Washington coast, marine life experts say.
The harmless jellyfish-like animals are called salps.
They've been found by clam diggers and turned up in the pots of crab fishermen who have been asking what they are, said state Fish and Wildlife Department biologist Dan Ayres at Montesano.
He hasn't seen them in more than 30 years and says their appearance now is unusual, but not alarming.
"I suspect these guys came from the deep ocean," Ayres said Wednesday. "Why they've been washed up is a question I can't answer."
Salps are common in the blue water off Oregon and Washington, said Rick Brodeur, an oceanographer known as the "jellyfish person" at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Science Center in Newport, Ore.
Salps turn up in survey nets, and their numbers vary from year to year. Their appearance on the Washington coast could mean their numbers are increasing for some reason or a current has brought them onshore.
"Sometimes fishermen bring us stuff and say, 'This is really weird,' but they just don't see them" often, Brodeur said Thursday. "It doesn't mean it's a long-term change."
Masses of salps last April off California's central coast clogged cooling water intake screens and forced operators to shut down a Diablo Canyon reactor.
"Huge numbers of salps" surprised scientists conducting a survey off central California with a trawler last May and June, said John C. Field, research fish biologist with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center at Santa Cruz, Calif.
"No one from the survey has ever seen anything like it," Field said in an email. The weight ripped the trawler nets.
Crabber Adam Miller had never seen a salp until he pulled one aboard in early February in a crab pot off Westport.
"We were joking about it, trying to figure out what it was," he said Thursday. It looked like a jellyfish "about the size of a guy's hand. The head is hard, and it has a couple of tentacles hanging off."
Brodeur identified a photo of Miller's catch as a Thetys salp.
"This is one of the most abundant salps we catch so I am not sure it's all that unusual to get them in a crab pot," Brodeur said.
Alan Rammer is an environmental education specialist retired from the state Fish and Wildlife Department but still active with the National Marine Educators Association, for which he is marine science teacher of the year. The Central Park resident also serves as the Grays Harbor County representative on the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary advisory council. So when coastal residents started finding salps this winter they sent Rammer photos.
"I was stumped when I got the first pictures," he said Wednesday. "I had no clue."
He learned about them and had three in his freezer last week to show a KING-TV crew.
A salp is a pelagic tunicate. That means it lives in the open ocean and has a tube-like body that pumps water for locomotion and to filter the plankton on which it feeds. Despite its translucent appearance it's not closely related to jellyfish. It's a chordate, which means it has a spinal cord and is related to vertebrates. Salps can swim singly or in rope-like colonies. They have the ability to reproduce rapidly and can bloom when the plankton supply is rich.
Rammer believes their appearance is a sign of climate change in their environment.
"If food becomes plush we could go nuts here with any animal," he said.