DFO scientists identify ‘gooey’ sea creatures

Slimy bluish substance washing ashore around Burin Peninsula

Paul Herridge editor@southerngazette.ca
Published on October 23, 2014
Scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) believe the slimy, bluish organisms that have washed ashore around the Burin Peninsula in recent weeks are pelagic tunicate salps. — DFO photo

Scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) believe they have identified the slimy, bluish substance that has popped up along shorelines around the Burin Peninsula in recent weeks.

DFO research scientist Dr. Pierre Pepin said he and his colleagues originally thought the sea creatures were ctenophores — transparent, gelatinous marine animals that swim by means of cilia and are found in marine waters around the world.

After closer inspection, the organisms appear to be pelagic tunicate salps, he said.

Unsure of what exactly the substance was when it first started to appear, residents in the area contacted the RCMP.

Pepin said the first report DFO received was in the Ship Cove, Burin area. Since then, they have been spotted all along the south coast, he said.

“When we started off with this, the material had degraded quite a bit,” Pepin said.

“The pictures were largely out of focus. We’ve got some biologists that are in the area and they’ve produced some much more informative shots, and now we’re pretty sure that these are salps,” he told The Southern Gazette Wednesday.

Salps are barrel-shaped planktonic tunicates that move by pumping water through their jellylike bodies. Pepin said during one period of their life cycle, the creatures form a colonial chain. In another phase, they are solitary and asexual.

“These organisms have potentially very high growth rates when there’s sufficient food around, and so they can literally bloom, and that’s what you’re seeing the result of.”

Pepin said the salps are not harmful, but can have a significant impact on resources. They feed on phytoplankton, photosynthesizing microscopic organisms that live in the upper sunlit layer of most oceans and bodies of fresh water — in areas where they are found in high densities.

“They’re not poisonous. We don’t know what species we’re dealing with right now. We don’t think this is a harmful species. We are probably going to take a closer look at it to get more information and come to stronger conclusions,” he said.

Although salps have been found in Newfoundland before, Pepin said he has never seen anything like the thick mats witnessed recently around the Burin Peninsula.

Because conditions change so rapidly in coastal areas, pinpointing a cause is difficult, he said.

“Right now, we’re trying to deal with this on a rapid response basis as much as we can,” Pepin said.

“People are interested. They want to know what it is. Some people have expressed concern, which is understandable. The south coast of the island has had its share of little nasties show up in invasive species, like the vase tunicate and the green crab, and so we want to try to get a sense of what we’re dealing with here.”

The Southern Gazette