Day 1 – 4: The Great Wall of Echinoderms

Sorry for the cliffhanger on the last post folks, it turns out that keeping a blog updated from the road has some challenges.  It’s not because Ian has gone missing, it’s that WordPress, like many social media and information-sharing websites are banned in the People’s Republic of China. The good news is that Ian is back out from behind the Great Firewall with much new cool information to share!

After arriving in Manhattan on the Campus to Campus bus, Ian quickly ubered it over to JFK in time for check-in for the China Airlines flight to Taipei. As it was midnight there was, of course, no food concessions open at the airport. Ian was starving! At 1:30am, Ian boarded the flight which took off shortly thereafter.

China Airlines is the national carrier of Taiwan. For those of us who grew up during the 1980s (and before), the whole flight experience was somewhat incredible: We flew over Russia and Sakhalin Island (site of the KE007 shootdown), and flew to the PRC nonstop from Taiwan on a Taiwanese airline… prior to 2005, this route would have been totally impossible.

After the 16.5 hr flight Ian touched down in Taipei airport, where he wandered aimlessly for 4 hrs for the connection to Qingdao. The airport is absolutely spectacular – lots of shopping, restuarants, and in one concourse each gate area is themed. One gate had an environmental conservation theme and provided dioramas about native animals, while another gate had an indigenous culture theme. Ian can genuinely say he learned something about Taiwan from the experience.

Sunrise in Taipei, and an interesting drink I picked up. Collagen… yum (was a bit stringy…)!!

Ian boarded the next flight to Qingdao, which took 2 hrs despite being close to the city. This is because the flight has to take a weird route, including a pretty substantial chicane (S-bend) for air traffic control in China. After arriving and clearing customs, Ian met his host, Professor Qiang Xu. Prof Xu has been working on sea star wasting disease in China since 2015, when he noted the appearance of disease lesions on animals near aquaculture ponds. Ian and Qiang had conversed many times by email and Elliot has been performing viral metagenomics on samples that Qiang had sent.

After an hour-long ride in the Institute of Oceanology’s vehicle (driven by Mr. Chen – who kindly chauffeured Ian through the entire trip), Ian arrived and checked into the Wu Sheng Guan Holiday Hotel, near Hoquian Bay. Ian was treated to a quick and highly delicious lunch with Prof Xu before passing out for an hour in the hotel room.


Amazingly delicious lunch

After a short nap (so as not to encourage jet lag) Ian went for a walk to see some local sites. First, Ian walked down to Hoquian Bay and the No. 1 Bathing Beach (which is just down the road from the No. 2 Bathing Beach). This scenic beach is where a large number of chinese tourists come for their vacation. The beach itself is netted to prevent sharks, and what’s amazing is that the nets extend a clear half mile out into the bay, so one can do long-distance ocean swimming from the beach.


The boardwalk also has many souvenir shops along the way, and there is even an Oceanarium (Aquarium) on the far side of the bay. Chinese people are very friendly, and many are keen to practice their English. It was not infrequent that someone would come up to you and say “Hello. Welcome to China” with a broad smile across their face! After the beach Ian went for a walk to the nearby Zhongshen Park, which is where many 2008 Olympic Sailing cultural events were held.


Zhongshen Park and the Jingquiao Television Tower.

Feeling like his feet were like lead bricks, Ian went back to the hotel and slept from 6pm to 4am…

The following morning, Ian was met by Dr. Chengguan Lin, who accompanied him to the Institute for Oceanology Building at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a short walk from the Hotel. The meeting was attended by Prof. Xu, Lin, Dr. Lina Sun, a couple of other faculty and several graduate students from the research group. The meeting began with an overview of the institute and Qingdao region. The institute is home to over 6,000 students from all over china (and several other countries) all performing MS and PhD work on the ocean sciences, across all subdisciplines. They are affiliated with the nearby Ocean University of China and University of QIngdao. The institute is one of the oldest marine laboratories in China, having been established in 1950, and is one of three that are part of the CAS.

Inside the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanology.

Next, Ian gave a seminar about Sea Star Wasting Disease in the US, in which he conveyed new information about the disease that has come to light in the last 6 months. He also provided the first analyses done by Elliot about a densovirus similar to SSaDV that was present in the chinese sea star tissues.

After his talk, Qiang provided a further account about wasting disease in Shandong Province, including showing some amazing time-lapse of sea stars blowing themselves apart. The disease has affected only one main species in the region, Asterias amurensis, and not the common bat star Patiria pectinifera. The disease signs are identical to those in asteriid sea stars in the Pacific Northwest (i.e. Pisaster ochraceus), and, like SSWD in the PNW, Asterias amurensis had experienced a very large population growth over the previous decade but stars are now rare. All disease signs are the same. In Ian’s opinion, SSWD is in China.

After the talk, Ian and the faculty went back to the hotel for a full banquet lunch (delicious), which included many seafood items that are studied in the region, including sea cucumber (this was Ian’s first experience eating a holothurian), urchin, and “sea intestinal” (echiuran worms). All was amazingly delicious!

After lunch, Ian was met by Mr. Chen, a graduate student, Roger and Dr. Lin (and his wife) and traveled by car to the city of Weihai, which is the northeastern most city in Shandong, about 4.5 hrs from Qingdao. During the drive, Ian remarked on impressive infrastructure, including extremely well built and maintained highways, and the very, very large number of windmills. China is embracing clean energy like it’s going out of fashion. There are windmills everywhere, and each house/dwelling has several solar panels. The hotels embrace green alternatives, and there are recycling bins everywhere. It’s impressive to see this massive country go after clean energy so much!

Wind power is extensive in Shandong, and there are always separate bins for Recycling and Unrecycling (and CD) disposal…

After a long drive, Ian and colleagues met with Mr. Wong and Mr. Wong, two of the most senior executives in echinoderm aquaculture. Echinoderms, especially sea cucumbers, are a major commodity in Shandong and coastal China. These long-lived a slow-growing organisms are depleted in coastal areas through fishing, so there has been a great deal of development in their aquaculture. Both Mr. Wong and Mr. Wong are interested in working with scientists to improve the health and productivity of their facilities, with the aim of satisfying market demand for their product. After cha (green tea), we went to a local korean restaurant (Shandong is very close to the Korean peninsula, so there are many koreans living in Weihai and other cities close to the North Korean border.

Ian stayed at the Kowloons Hotel, which had a spectacular view of downtown Weihai. The city itself was under British rule from 1860 to 1930, but you can find little evidence of their influence.


Downtown Weihai from the hotel at dawn


One of the more interesting aspects about chinese hotels Ian noticed is that the shower often has a window to the bedroom. Ian is not too sure why…

After a scrumptious breakfast, Ian and the group traveled eastwards to Chengshan, home to a very large aquaculture farm facility. The area is basically a flat low-lying sandy strait, in which the government constructed hundreds (maybe thousands?) of concrete bunker-like aquaculture facilities. They draw water from the adjacent Yellow Sea during high tide. There, Ian met with a facility owner involved in sea cucumber, sea urchin, kelp and octopus culture. After more cha, he viewed the ponds themselves.


Inside the aquaculture facility.

The farmers collect adult wild-caught individuals from nearby waters (or propagate from existing stock), and collect their eggs and sperm when they spawn. They then place these into large concrete tanks with aeration to fertilize for a couple of days before performing 50% water changes. They then introduce settling chambers (basically a stack of plastic corrugated plates arranged into cubes) into the tanks. After another couple of days they perform 100% water changes daily. The spat, which start to grow on the sheets, become visible after a few weeks, and are fed a mixture of ground Laminaria japonicum (kelp) and marine mud. They are harvested at maturity after 3 – 5 years.

Settling plates with baby sea cucumbers (right).

Evidently losses of the animals are heavy – almost 95% are lost between the size they are first visible and harvest. This is normally blamed on animal stress, but there are genuine questions about the role of pathogens in this mortality. The facility also cultures urchins, which are fed kelp pieces.

Urchin culture on kelp. The urchins were pretty huge and were broodstock for the next generation.

The facility also grows octopii and uses small crab culture to feed them. Overall the facility, which is just one of several hundreds/thousands is impressive in its scope. It would also be a really interesting location to perform microbiological research and has provided Ian with new ideas on sea star culture.

After viewing the facility, the group traveled to another local restaurant where they had another massive buffet of local seafood, all chosen from freshly caught animals. The display of seafood was particularly impressive.

Such a huge diversity of seafood, including mantis shrimps (bottom left), octopii (bottom right) and a myriad of echiurans, sipunculids, and vertebrates.

After much food and a lot of laughs about Ian’s chopstick skills, the group travelled to the small town of Rongcheng, where the group had arranged with local divers to collect sea stars. One of the most striking things about the drive down were the sheer number of trucks carrying kelp (Laminaria japonicum) – massive semi-trailers literally overflowing with the kelp. It is clearly an important harvest for the region and China on the whole.


Kelp overflowing a truck!

On arrival to Roncheng, Dr. Lin left the dock with the port manager and local divers to take measurements of water temperature, pH and salinity. This was the first time they had surveyed this site since earlier in the year, when sea stars were abundant. However, the divers had to search for over an hour to locate even a single sea star. Meanwhile Ian and Roger chatted about life in China and discussed potential ideas for furthering the collaboration.

Literally tens of thousands of floats for Laminaria culture. Boats go out daily and retrieve the kelp, which is loaded onto semi-trailers.

After the hunt, divers retrieved a total of 3 sea stars; two large Asterias amurensis, and one Patiria pectinifera, all of which were healthy. The overall abundance of sea stars being so depleted, it is comforting to see such large and apparently healthy animals, but one wonders what will happen to them as the season progresses.


Chinese sea stars!

After sampling the group proceeded back to Qingdao. The trip took 5 hrs, since it was a Friday night and in the city of 6.8 million people (where car ownership is 1 per family) traffic can be intense. Roger joked that the East-West expressway was really the East-West Parking Lot. Back in the lab, Roger froze the collected stars. Ian fell asleep at 8pm, still feeling the effects of jet lag.

The following morning, Ian had breakfast at the hotel before Roger and Mr. Chen accompanied him to Qingdao Airport, which takes about an hour. Arriving early, the group had lunch (chinese mackerel dumplings) before Ian made it past PRC customs and the very short flight to Seoul.

Leaving the PRC behind, Ian then transferred to a flight to Australia, some 9 1/2 hrs away, to visit family and get some R&R. And of course update the website!

Overall an excellent, insightful and useful visit to the PRC, which will lead to further investigation and collaboration. Its amazing to see that SSWD affects stars on the other side of the Pacific, and leads me to question how it got there and what is its potential cause. No doubt there will be a return visit at some stage in the future. Many thanks to Prof Xu, Drs. Sun, Lin and Roger for a most excellent visit!

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