West Coast marine life dying – 07/13/2005

  • October 30, 2013 at 1:44 am #832

    Warmer oceans may be killing West Coast marine life

    By Carina Stanton
    Seattle Times staff reporter


    Scientists suspect that rising ocean temperatures and dwindling
    plankton populations are behind a growing number of seabird deaths,
    reports of fewer salmon and other anomalies along the West Coast.

    Coastal ocean temperatures are 2 to 5 degrees above normal,
    apparently caused by a lack of upwelling — a process that brings
    cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface and jump-starts the marine
    food chain.

    Upwelling fuels algae and shrimplike krill populations that feed
    small fish, which provide an important food source for a variety of
    sea life, from salmon to sea birds and marine mammals.

    “Something big is going on out there,” said Julia Parrish, an
    associate professor in the School of Aquatic Fisheries and Sciences
    at the University of Washington. “I’m left with no obvious smoking
    gun, but birds are a good signal because they feed high up on the
    food chain.”

    This spring, scientists reported a record number of dead seabirds
    washed up on beaches along the Pacific Coast, from central California
    to British Columbia.

    In Washington, the highest numbers of dead seabirds — particularly
    Brandt’s cormorants and common murres — were found along the southern
    coast at Ocean Shores.

    Bird surveyors in May typically find an average of one dead Brandt’s
    cormorant every 34 miles of beach. But this year, cormorant deaths
    averaged one every eight-tenths of a mile, according to data gathered
    by volunteers with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team,
    which Parrish has directed since 2000.

    How you can help

    Scientists want to know when dead animals wash up along Washington’s

    To report marine mammals, call the NOAA fisheries marine-mammal
    strandings hotline at 206-526-6733.

    To report birds, contact the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey
    Team at 206-221-6893.

    “This is somewhere between five and 10 times the highest number of
    bird deaths we’ve seen before,” she said.

    Parrish expects June figures to show a similar trend.

    Upwelling is fueled by northerly winds that sweep out near-shore
    waters and bring cold water to the surface.

    “You can think of it like a cup of coffee,” Parrish explained. “When
    you pour in cold cream and then blow across the cup, the cream rises
    up from the bottom.”

    But this spring’s cool, wet weather brought southwesterly winds to
    coastal areas and very little northerly winds, said Nathan Mantua, a
    research scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University
    of Washington.

    And without upwelling, high-fat plankton such as krill stay at lower

    “In 50 years, this has never happened,” said Bill Peterson, an
    oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
    Administration (NOAA) in Newport, Ore. “If this continues, we will
    have a food chain that is basically impoverished from the very lowest

    Salmon surveys

    NOAA’s June and July surveys of juvenile salmon off the coasts of
    Oregon, Washington and British Columbia indicate a 20 to 30 percent
    drop in populations, compared with surveys from 1998-2004, especially
    coho and chinook.

    “We don’t really know that this will cause bad returns. The runs this
    year haven’t been horrible, but below average,” said Ed Casillas,
    program manager of Estuarine and Ocean Ecology at NOAA’s Northwest
    Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

    “The take-away message is that we are seeing unusual conditions so we
    need to be cautious with returns for the next one to four years,” he
    said. “Managers need to put enough time, people and money on the
    ocean side of the question.”

    This spring, scientists began tracking anomalies along Washington’s
    coast, from the appearance of warm-water plankton species to scores
    of jellyfish piling up on beaches. A Guadalupe fur seal, native to
    South America, was found dead in Ocean Shores.

    Parrish is documenting unusual breeding behavior among common murres
    on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula. In 15 years of
    monitoring the murre colony, this is the latest the birds have
    initiated breeding.

    “They are starting very, very late and then just giving up,” she said.

    Seabirds are also showing signs of stress in California, said Bill
    Sydeman, director of marine ecology at Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

    Sydeman monitors a colony of Cassin’s auklets in the Farallon
    Islands, west of San Francisco. This spring’s breeding season was a
    month late, Sydeman said. Less than half the colony tried to nest in
    April and then abandoned the colony by June.

    “We have been monitoring this colony for 35 years. Never before have
    we seen colony abandonment,” he said. “Nobody saw this coming.”

    Sydeman and Parrish point to starvation stress as the cause for
    decreased breeding and increased bird deaths, especially among the
    cormorants, murres and auklets.

    Signs of stress

    Studies of dead birds in May on California beaches found emaciated
    bodies, with atrophied muscles and empty stomachs, said Hannah
    Nevins, a beached-bird survey coordinator at the Moss Landing Marine
    Lab in Northern California.

    “Spring is when the food comes in,” Nevins said. “When you have a
    really strong, persistent upwelling wind, it creates a conveyor belt
    of food, but the wind is slacking this year.”

    Mantua, the UW research scientist, tracks ocean temperatures and
    climate conditions to understand changes in currents and wind
    patterns. This year he found temperatures 2 to 5 degrees above
    normal — readings typically seen during an El Niño. But this is not
    an El Niño year, he said.

    The trend toward warmer temperatures began in fall 2002, said
    Peterson, the NOAA oceanographer. No one is pointing to one direct
    cause for the warmer waters, but many scientists suspect climate
    change may be involved.

    While Peterson is concerned about the unusual ocean conditions, he is
    more worried that people will not take notice.

    “People have to realize that things are connected — the state of
    coastal temperatures and plankton populations are connected to larger
    issues like Pacific salmon populations,” he said.

    Scientists say animals along the Pacific Coast have managed to
    overcome changing environmental conditions for many years.

    “All of these species are very long-lived,” Parrish said. “They can
    die in big numbers for a year or two without severe impact to the

    But, she cautioned, human activity could jeopardize the survival of
    animals already stressed by environmental changes.

    “This, for instance, would be a truly bad year for an oil spill.”

    Carina Stanton

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