Warmer ocean temps killing sea birds, salmon . . .

Kent Lufkin

Remember when you could remember everything?
This from today's Seattle Times.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005 - Page updated at 09:40 AM

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.

"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 depths.

"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 levels."
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 populations."

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: 206-464-8349 or [email protected]

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

David Holmes

Formerly known as "capmblade"
IMHO, the times is being misleading (say it ain't so!!!).

The first sentence of the article sort of makes it sound like global warming is reponsible for rising ocean temperatures and dwindling plankton, etc. I emailed the Nathan Mantua, the scientist who was quoted and this was his reply (emphasis mine):

David, the sea life is being directly impacted by the very warm, nutrient poor and plankton depleted water in the top few hundred feet of the coastal ocean. Those coastal ocean conditions are there because of a lack of strong upwelling winds that blow from north to south, and the lack of north wind is due to our cool wet spring weather. Does that chain all fit together now?
So its actually a local cooling event that is causing this problem.

BTW, Mr. Mantua has a picture of himself catching a fish on a flyrod on his web page. I asked him if it was a steelhead and this was his reply:

My web-page photo is from a salmon fishing trip in SE Alaska. We actually caught a couple steelhead, but they were far outnumbered by pinks, sockeye and chum during the week we were there.

Good thing you didn't have any takes today, that would've been really frustrating!

Kent Lufkin

Remember when you could remember everything?
capmblade said:
The first sentence of the article sort of makes it sound like global warming is reponsible for rising ocean temperatures and dwindling plankton, etc.

So its actually a local cooling event that is causing this problem.

Since none of us has ever been through a major climatic change before, there's no collective experience for us to draw on to predict exactly what will happen.

In an article a year or so ago, I read where one model suggested that despite the name 'global warming', local temperatures would vary considerably, especially along coastlines. Here's why. An overall warming in the earth's air temperature would increase evaporation from the ocean resulting in increased cloud cover. The jet stream would push these clouds over downwind coastlines, resulting in additional rain inland along the upslopes. This increased coastal cloud cover would actually reduce the amount of sunlight striking the coastal areas and therefore reduce local temperatures, contrary to the notion of an overall warming.

Although this scenario was only a model and not an observed fact, it's not a huge stretch to imagine such local warming and cooling resulting in changing convections in the atmosphere, thus disturbing normal wind patterns.

Here's the skinny on the Eastern Pacific as I understand it, the result of endless study on the matter as well as first hand experience gained as a commerical salmon troller for 12 years during the school layoff period, approx. Jun. July and Aug.

For good fishing, that is high survival rates of the smolts and fat fish.

1. The winds need to blow more or less constantly from the north so as to keep driving the water to the south.
2. When this wind driven water reaches the equator, the trade winds will blow the water westward.
3. The water will stack up in the Philippines or elsewhere in the Western Pacific (it has actually been messured to be several feet higher than, say, our coast. Everything has to go somewhere (Law of ecology).
4. So this high water pushes down and the water is raised on our side as a result. (Everything has to go someplace).
5. Stuff, like nutrients and sea life, is pushed up.
6. The whole food chain is enriched and fishing is great.

You can actually see these upwellings as you are trolling. They appear as muddy water and ordinarily you would avoid fishing in it. But experience tells you that the mud is where you want to be--it is full of fish.

In my last years of fishing, I noticed that the sea birds were dying, the fish were not as fat or numerous. The mud didn't show up. The wind from the north just wasn't there like it used to be.

And then there was a general collapse of the fishery. I got out. Too few fish; dangerous storms from the south, low prices because of the salmon farms. It just wasn't worth it.

Bob, the I'm lucky I made it out alive :cool:

Jim Wallace

Smells like low tide.
Well, the wind picked up out of the NW here today and blew hard and gusty all afternoon, 15-20 knots or so. That's stronger Northerly winds than we have been having...I think they are finally starting to kick in. We need that heat-induced low pressure in N California and East of the Cascades with high pressure offshore of us to get those Northerlies cranked up. If it keeps up, maybe we'll get some upwelling.


Jim Wallace

Smells like low tide.
For those of you who haven't found it yet, an excellent site for ocean swell, wind, and sea-surface temp data is Oceanweather.com.
Click on "Current Marine Data," then on the square for our area here in the NE Pacific, then one of the three circles for swell, wind, and temp.
Looks like were in hot water...mid 60's F off the coast and a really warm swath off the East coast of Vancouver Island.
I've never seen it like this before! :eek:


Jim Wallace

Smells like low tide.
Things might be looking up. The northerly winds are starting to kick in, especially in the afternoons, with the "heat-low" inland and to the south of us.
My friend who commercial fishes and surfs says the surface water has cooled down about 3 or 4 degrees since last week. He surfed yesterday and said the water definitely felt cooler to his hands. That's a pretty accurate indicator, as I could always guess the temp to withing 2 degrees F by gaging it with my hands.
The WA coastal marine forecast calls for NW winds 15-25 knots this Friday thru Sunday, which might not be so good for surfers and pukers (charter boat customers) as the wind chop gets a little snotty, but it might continue to move some of the warm surface water out of here. :ray1:


David Holmes

Formerly known as "capmblade"

I bet this correlates to the warmer weather we've been having. Warmer weather = NW winds = colder coastal water. Maybe now the salmon and steelhead will come in.

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