October 30, 2013 at 1:44 am #832MikeKeymaster
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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