A peek inside Port Townsend’s aquarium

Posted 5/20/20

This time of year, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s aquarium on the Fort Worden dock is typically crawling with visitors each weekend who peer through the glass at fish swimming in their marine habitats or reach  into the touch tanks to feel the textured skin of a sea star.

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A peek inside Port Townsend’s aquarium

Posted

This time of year, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s aquarium on the Fort Worden dock is typically crawling with visitors each weekend who peer through the glass at fish swimming in their marine habitats or reach  into the touch tanks to feel the textured skin of a sea star.

But because of the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, the many creatures that live in the aquarium have had the place to themselves.

Ali Redman, PTMSC’s aquarium curator, is one of the few visitors who helps care for and feed the many animals.

Below, Redman responds to questions from the Leader about being an aquarium curator and the importance of our marine ecosystems.

Q: What are some of your duties as caretaker of these animals?


Redman:  There is feeding, of course, and lots of cleaning, but one of the most fun and arguably most important things is observing them. Do they look healthy? Are they stressed? What is their favorite food? Where in the tank do they spend the most time? How do they get along with their tankmates?

Q: What is your favorite animal at the aquarium (if you can choose)?

Redman:  My heart goes to the slightly improbable —  looking animals, like grunt sculpins and pipefish. They look like beautiful fantasy illustrations, but they are actually extremely well-adapted to their lifestyle.

Q: Explain how the aquarium uses Puget Sound water for the tanks — and how this sometimes means new creatures appear in the aquarium.


Redman: Our pumps pull water from directly below the aquarium. After it flows through the tanks, the water cascades back to mix with the Salish Sea again. If you look under the pier near the stairs you can see streams of water pouring from each tank. We have 1/8th-inch screens on our intake pipes, but plankton and other small plants and animals can find their way in. Some we love, like the sea slugs (aka nudibranchs) some we could do without (like the barnacles that clog the pipes.) The water flows 24/7 and if there is a problem, an alarm system called the Sensaphone phones us day or night.

Q: Do the animals act differently when there aren’t any visitors?


Redman:  Behavior is always changing, but not so much in regards to visitors. Careful exhibit design and animal selection allows us to avoid animals that would be stressed by visitors. Some of our animals are nocturnal, so they act differently at night. Even we rarely get to see that. Behavior also changes a lot over the year and with temperature. Spring is a really fun time with lots happening as the days get longer, the water warmer, and food more abundant. This week, for the first time, I saw a blackeyed goby laying her eggs while her mate literally prodded her along by bumping into her over and over again. Even being here a lot, I still get to see new things.

Q: Why do you like having the aquarium open to people?


Redman:  Visitors are fun and important! The aquarium is one of the ways we fulfill our mission of inspiring the conservation of the Salish Sea. Bringing knowledge and wonder to others is a big part of why we do this. Although being in the aquarium is still fun, it’s not the same. Not having visitors is like putting on a play without an audience.

Hopefully, expanded online activities will allow us to continue our work during this time. We try to keep in touch with our members and visitors as much as possible through our website,  Facebook and Instagram.  We will be doing more Facebook Live events in the future to bring people into our aquarium and in the field with us virtually.  And for anyone looking for more resources to explore on their own, our website now features a page with Online Activities and Events.  Keep your eyes out for a DIY Low Tide walk coming out at the end of this month!

Q: Why should we care about protecting marine environments?


Redman:  We rely on marine environments for food, oxygen, shoreline protection, recreation, tourism and many more economically valuable services. There are also things that are harder to put a monetary value on, such as the wonder and awe they inspire in us. 

Q: Why are these marine animals important for their ecosystems?


Redman: While we know that each animal plays an important role in the ecosystem, it isn’t always clear what that role is. For animals like sea otters and sunflower stars (both top consumers of urchins) the importance of their role in controlling urchin populations only fully came to light when their numbers declined and we could see the devastating effects on our shared environment, and on fisheries in particular. That’s why it is important to protect the environment as a whole, even if we don’t yet know the individual importance of its parts.

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