Sites and Critters

Winter is coming

Winter is coming… well, it’s here really. January is a time of change and rebirth for many species in the seasonal seas of the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps this is true for none more so than the Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini. As the largest known octopus species in the world, these graceful giants are prominent inhabitants of Seattle’s underwater environment and serve as a captivating icon of local marine ecosystems for many Seattleites.

Despite their considerable size, Giant Pacific Octopus are thought to live only 3 years on average. And they’re semelparous… meaning they reproduce only once before they die. In their final year of life, the male presents a spermatophore to the female using a special tentacle called a hectocotylus. She carries the spermatophore around delicately for some time. Then, as winter descends, she establishes her clutch of fertilized eggs in the safety of her den. For months, she works tirelessly to keep them clean and protect them from predators. She doesn’t eat or leave their side. They remain her focus for the remainder of her life. With luck, she’ll survive to see the eggs hatch and her offspring swim off into the great blue world that awaits.

In the video below, you’ll see fertilized octopus eggs in a den we found last year under a fiberglass boat that was resting on the seafloor at a depth of about 50ft (in south Seattle). My video skills are admittedly horrific. Though the mother’s body isn’t visible in its entirety, you’ll see her flush the eggs with the end of her tentacle repeatedly (if you look very closely).

However, for a very sweet and far better visual exploration of an octomom’s final days, see the beautiful video by Drew Collins (below):


Photo of tentacles of giant Pacific octopus
Ecosystem Services

Octopus protection in Puget Sound

It’s official – A state commission voted yesterday to prohibit hunting of giant Pacific octopus at 7 popular dive areas around Puget Sound. This marks the end of a long process that started last Halloween, when an octopus was harvested at Cove 2, a popular site for local divers in West Seattle (see article in Seattle Times). Fishing for octopus at the site was legal at the time and the hunter had the proper permitting, but the episode troubled many in the dive community who view octopus as a charismatic species that should be conserved.  Following the controversy, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife assembled a panel to review the rules surrounding octopus harvest in Puget Sound.  Yesterday’s vote comes in response to the findings from that panel and from the options set forth by WDFW.

Illustration of giant Pacific octopus

Illustration by Ivan Phillipsen. Check out his drawings and blog at:

You can see the news release from WDFW on the decision here.

An overview of the rule-making process and findings of the advisory panel is provided by WDFW here.

I suspect the decision is receiving mixed responses from divers and hunters. While reporters and other community members are much better suited to follow these aspects of the story, I’d like to highlight why I think this story is so important. In my mind, this is an example of a conflict over the ecosystem services provided by urban marine resources.  In Seattle, we are lucky to have an urban marine ecosystem that is vibrant, full of life forms that come in all shapes and sizes.  As such, the system provides a variety of ecosystem services: strong recreational fisheries for crab, lingcod, shrimp, and other shellfish, extensive opportunities for SCUBA diving and encounters with octopus, six gill sharks, wolf eels, and marine mammals, transportation to and from local islands and suburbs, maritime commerce, and so on.  In an ideal world, all of these services are thriving, providing city residents with a connection to nature and an awareness of the urban marine ecosystem of which we are all a part.

As urban marine ecosystems become cleaner and healthier, conflicts over the use of the resources provided by these ecosystems will undoubtedly arise. How do we want to resolve these conflicts?  What should the objectives be?  Who should be in charge?  How can all users of urban marine ecosystems be incorporated into the process?  WDFW’s recent process to explore alternative options for octopus is one example of how such conflicts can be addressed, and it’s one of the first well publicized processes that I know of. Whether you agree with their final decision or not, I think it’s a great jumping off point for a much needed and even broader discussion: How would we, as urban communities, like to move forward with managing urban marine resources?