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May 26, 2005

The Weekly Wrap

Jellyfish invasion?
"By-the-wind sailors" blanket area beaches


The Weekly Wrap

POT CONVICTION: Two men involved in the biggest marijuana bust in Humboldt County's lush history of pot farming were sentenced to prison last week in federal court in San Francisco, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. Roy Bryan Mercer, 40, of Eureka and Dennis Franklin Hunter, 32, of Nevada City will each serve six and a half years in prison followed by five years of supervised release for operating an indoor plantation in the Three Creeks area of Berry Summit near Willow Creek. There were more than 12,000 marijuana plants. Federal and local agents discovered the massive grow in June 1998 but Mercer and Hunter fled into the surrounding woods in the Six Rivers National Forest and were not apprehended until 2002. In July 2003 both men pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to grow more than 1,000 marijuana plants and one count of conspiring to conduct illegal financial transactions involving the sale of marijuana. A third defendant in the case, Shaun Turner, 35, is a fugitive.

FLUORIDE FOES SUBMIT SIGNATURES: An Arcata group that wants to put an end to the city's fluoridation of its drinking water last week submitted signed petitions aimed at putting the issue to a vote. According to Alma McCall, Arcata's deputy city clerk, the group -- known as "Arcata Citizens for Safe Drinking Water" -- submitted more than 1,700 signatures to the city on Wednesday. In order to qualify for the ballot, 1,234 of those must be from valid, registered Arcata voters. McCall said Monday that she has already begun the process of verifying the signatures, promising only that the work would be complete before the June 18 deadline. A coalition of local dentists, medical providers and child-care professionals has formed to oppose the measure.

ALL-STAR TREE SIT CASE TO COURT: Sparks will fly in the county Board of Supervisors' chambers Friday morning, as the litigants in a massive tree-sitting lawsuit occupy the room for a rare hearing. At 9 a.m., Freshwater tree-sitters known as Remedy, Wren, Mystique, Annapurna, Amanita, Smokey and Luigi, many of them acting as their own attorneys, will argue that Pacific Lumber Co. and Schatz Tree Service committed a number of actionable offenses against them -- including assault, battery, infliction of emotional distress and kidnapping -- when the companies hauled the activists from their trees in March 2003. Overseeing the case will be the irascible Hon. Quentin L. Kopp, who will appear as a visiting judge from San Mateo County. Kopp, of course, is better known for the years he spent as a San Francisco supervisor, a politically independent state senator and a sharp-tongued talk show host on KGO radio. The treesitters' charges against the company are cross-complaints in a larger civil suit brought by Palco against these and other local activists for trespass and conspiracy. The case is being tried in the supervisors' chambers because it is expected to attract an unusual number of spectators.

AUGUST CASE STUMBLES TO TRIAL: The trial of Fortuna City Councilmember Debi August got off to a rocky start Monday, after Deputy District Attorney Tim Stoen filed a challenge against Judge Christopher Wilson, who had been assigned the case. Stoen later said that he challenged Wilson out of concern that his previous run-ins with the judge during preliminary motions over the DA's fraud lawsuit against Pacific Lumber Co. would bias Wilson against his case. "I just want to make sure that everyone feels that the case has been free of any bias," he said. The case was reassigned to Judge John Feeney, who then threatened to recuse himself after Steven Schectman, a volunteer DA deputy, appeared in court alongside Stoen. Feeney said that he harbored a bias against Schectman. Schectman agreed not to participate. Last week, Feeney dismissed three of the four counts leveled at August, which dealt with failure to properly fill out financial disclosure forms and disclosure of evidence from the grand jury investigation of her. Feeney did, however, allow the most serious count -- conflict of interest stemming from her duties as a public official and a private real estate broker -- to proceed. A state appeals court later declined to hear a defense motion to quash the remaining count.

BEAR KILLED: A young black bear showed up on the west side of Eureka Monday morning, rummaging through backyards and leading the Eureka Police Department and deputies from the California Department of Fish and Game through residential neighborhoods. After a few hours, the bear was shot and killed.

MORRIS GRAVES LANDS GRANT: The Humboldt Arts Council got word last week the Morris Graves Museum, which it manages, had landed a federal grant that will help the local institution's goals of becoming a fully accredited arts museum. The grant, worth approximately $7,800, will pay for two experts to come to town and assess the state of the Morris Graves' collection and the old Carnegie Library that houses it. This is a key step in receiving accreditation from the American Association of Museums, which allows museums to borrow work from one another or to host traveling exhibitions.

NEW AG COMISH: After a year-long vacancy, the Humboldt County Agriculture Commissioner seat was filled this month. Heidi Wong, who has served as Merced County's deputy agriculture commissioner for the past eight years, will take over the Humboldt County post in June. Officials said the task of hiring a new commissioner was a difficult one because only 125 people in the state have both an agriculture commissioner license and a county sealer of weights and measures license, which are required for the job. The agriculture commissioner is responsible for monitoring weights and measures, enforcing package label laws, pest detection and exclusion, pesticide use, and management of feral animal damage. The Board of Supervisors approved a $700 per month pay increase for the position to $7,021 monthly. Former county agriculture commissioner John Falkenstrom retired in 2004 after 30 years on the job. County Agricultural Inspector Paul Holzeberger has served as the interim commissioner.

DELTA DENTAL GRANT: Though some kids might wince at the idea of visiting the dentist, two area health centers are smiling now that they will get extra funds to provide dental care to children from low-income families. Delta Dental, California's largest dental health plan, announced Monday that it will distribute $2.7 million in state and federal funds to California clinics in geographically remote areas -- Humboldt County is one of them -- and for kids in special populations, like farm workers' children in the Central Valley. Humboldt's Open Door Community Health Center will receive $40,621 annually for the next two years to extend the hours of its Saturday pediatric dental clinic at the Burre Dental Center in Eureka, and Southern Trinity Health Services, which serves some Humboldt County children, will receive $32,282 each year to expand its mobile dental services. Sixteen health clinics in California were chosen for funding.

CORRECTION: The Journal's May 12 story on child poverty ("When ends don't meet") reported incorrectly that the county mental health department employs two child psychologists. Rather, the department employs two child psychiatrists. The Journal regrets the error. [The online version has been corrected.]

Jellyfish invasion?
"By-the-wind sailors" blanket area beaches


For the past month, hoards of tiny jellyfish-like creatures have blanketed the coast from Samoa to Trinidad, lining the high tide mark in massive heaps of tiny, squishy, translucent blue bodies.

The small visitors flood North Coast beaches by the tens of thousands every year, leaving behind the stench of mass-decomposition and piles of papery white exoskeletons for weeks.

Though the scene is one of apparent devastation, the annual beaching is a natural product of a colony blown off course, biologists said.

Velella lata, commonly known as "by-the-wind sailors," normally inhabit the surface of the open ocean, but onshore winds in spring and early summer often pitch thousands of the creatures onto beaches along the West Coast.

The sailors, which grow to about 3 inches, use a series of sealed air chambers for buoyancy, and sail great distances on the surface of the water using a triangular, somewhat rigid sail held above their disc-like bodies.

"It's thought that these organisms spend most of their life out on the North Pacific," said Milt Boyd, department chair of biological sciences at Humboldt State University.

The sailors are stranded in large numbers after they breed in early spring when plankton are blooming. With the larval stage out to sea, mature and some immature sailors wash ashore. Boyd said the creatures are usually marooned after living their entire life cycle of several months.

Found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters, by-the-wind sailors are a relative of the deadly Portuguese man of war jellyfish, with one difference.

"Their sting is not harmful to us, unlike the Portuguese man of war," said Sean Craig, associate professor of biological sciences at Humboldt State. The animals use their short tentacles to sting and subdue small organisms like plankton and crustaceans. "But I wouldn't want small children or dogs to eat a lot of them," Craig said.

While by-the-wind sailors resemble jellyfish in structure, Craig said they are not classified as a true jellyfish. The sailors are members of the Phylum Cnidaria (animals armed with stinging cells), and share the same subgroup as the man of war, hydrozoa. Closely related in other Cnidaria subgroups are true jellyfish and sea anemones.

Hydrozoans have two life stages: medusa, a free-swimming form, like pelagic jellyfish, and polyp, an anchored, stationary form, like anemones. By-the-wind sailors, however, are unique polyps, free-floating as adults on the open ocean.

Craig said the Pacific Ocean sailors, commonly mistaken for their Atlantic relatives Velella velella, travel in huge colonies, with each individual specialized for feeding, breeding, catching prey and constructing the sail that allows them to travel.

"In this kind of organism, there's a kind of partition of different tasks," said Hal Genger, Humboldt State oceanography lecturer. "A portion is for feeding, a portion is for reproducing, a portion is for bodily structure.

"They can't control direction at all," Genger continued. "They're victims of the ocean and wind currents."


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