Archive for the ‘Global warming’ Category

MPAs in the New Canada

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

A welcome light has come on in Canada.

We have a new government that accepts evidence-based arguments concerning issues ranging from social justice for First Nations Peoples to human-induced climate change. The Ministry of the Environment is now the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and Canada played a positive role at the recent Paris Conference on Climate Change. After the past 10 years of embarrassment on the international stage, this is taking some getting used to.

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard  in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Led by Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, environmental and conservation questions are once again part of the national agenda.

For instance, a few days ago Canada’s national newspaper reported in detail on Canada’s existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), plans for their immediate expansion, and longer term plans to actually try to meet UN proposed targets: specifically 5% of ocean waters protected by 2017 and 5% more by 2020.

Until now, Canada has been very slow to protect its coastal waters. Currently only 1.3% are under some sort of protection, but only 0.11% is actually ‘no take’, with no commercial fishing or drilling.

In contrast, both the UK and the US now have about 10% of their oceans protected as no-take areas, with lesser protection over much more. This might seem an unfair comparison, since much of thees protected areas lie around remote Pacific islands. On the other hand, Canada has the world’s longest coastline, bordering three oceans, and a lot of it truly remote as well. There’s potential here for some major action!

The key questions of course, here as everywhere else, are how do we decide what to protect and how do we to protect it?

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

At present Canada protects 8 hotspots, important certainly, but very limited in size. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society proposes 14 further sites, including a few that are somewhat larger – like the Bay of Fundy, the St.Lawrence Estuary, and Lancaster Sound. That’s a start, but now is the time to plan on a much larger scale.

Politics will certainly intrude, particularly since this is an opportunity to protect Canada’s Arctic coastal ecosystems ahead of the coming thaw and development of the Arctic. Even in the New Canada, politics will still trump science. It always does.

And anyway, what do we mean by ‘protection’? Despite the accumulating evidence of the social, economic and environmental benefits of fully protected areas, full protection is hard to achieve. Globally, only 1.6% of the oceans are fully protected. Canada’s new 10% target needs to be of fully protected, no-take coastal waters.

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total  area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

Politics aside, a lot of excellent data-based advice now exists on how to do this right, and all of it is possible:

– Size matters: the bigger the protected area the better
– Full protection is essential, prohibiting commercial fishing, mining and drilling
– Corridors between reserves, forming networks of protected areas, allow fishing between reserves
– Adjacent coastal communities need to be involved in all aspects of establishing MPAs
– Enforcement is essential for success, and the new technologies are effective
– Comprehensive ecosystem-based management is worth developing
– Other issues, like illegal fishing, wasteful bycatch, overfishing, and the effects of climate change all need to be included
– Adaptive management is essential: the one thing we know is that ecosystem change will be on-going

The point of the 10% target by 2020 (set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is to allow ecosystems to recover from current stress and to increase their resilience.

We also know that the target should be much higher, more in the range of 20-50%. But with the short time-line, 10% is a decent start, and it is achievable.

What has been changing globally over the past few years and now finally includes Canada is the emergence of political will to make it happen.

This is so unexpected and is really quite amazing.

The Long Decline of Shorebirds.

Friday, December 11th, 2015

First we – or at least our ‘sportsmen’ – shot most of the migrating shorebirds along the US east coast.

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

They are mostly small birds, but they are famous for their annual, energetically costly flights between Arctic feeding and breeding grounds in the northern summer to coastal mudflats in far southern latitudes in the southern summer, sometimes 9000 km or more away. Two of the major flyways they use as they migrate follow the eastern coasts of the Americas and the eastern coast of Asia.

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

They need to stop on occasion on these flights to feed on the coastal mudflats and sandy shores of eastern North America and of the Yellow Sea on the coast of China, and some of these areas attract – or used to attract – vast numbers of the migrants.

And that’s the problem.

In the 1800s, and lasting until the early 1900s, ‘sportsmen’ gathered at the extensive mud flats and sandy shores along the US east coast during migration season where the migrating birds gathered to feed, and they shot them by the many thousands, year after year, until not many were left, and the hunt was finally terminated, as usual far too late.

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

Cleveland Bent, a famous ornithologist of the turn of the century (he lived from 1866 to 1950), wrote Life Histories of American Shorebirds, filled with fascinating detail you don’t see in modern field guides. He also shot a lot the birds he wrote about, and then lamented their decline.

He wrote that the birds were “like a huge cloud of thick smoke, a very grand and interesting appearance. As the showers of their compatriots fell, the whole flock took flight, till the sportsman is completely satiated with destruction”.

And: “Those were glorious days we used to spend on Cape Cod in the good old days. There were shorebirds to shoot, and we were allowed to shoot them. It is a pity that the delightful days of bay-bird shooting had to be restricted. Ruthless slaughter has squandered our previous wealth of wildlife.”

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knots, Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones, Yellow Legs, Dowitchers , Wilson’s Snipes – the list goes on and on. Shorebirds were hunted close to extinction, some for meat but mainly for sport. Not unlike Passenger Pigeons and American Buffalo of the same era.

Yet only limited recovery of the shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway has since occurred.

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots - and other migrating species - have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north.  (virtualbirder.com)

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots – and other migrating species – have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north. (virtualbirder.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Having more or less survived the hunt, migrating shorebirds on the Atlantic Flyway have been further stressed by the loss of coastal wetlands and feeding habitats over the past century. For shorebirds migrating along the coasts of east Asia from Siberia to Australia, following the Australasian Flyway, conditions are becoming far worse.

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

The problem once again is loss of food-rich coastal staging areas, particularly around the Yellow Sea, to agricultural and industrial development. China’s new Great Wall, sealing off the sea along much of its coastline, is eliminating most of the remaining mudflats, and eliminating the shorebirds as a result.

So we hunted many species close to extinction. We have damaged or destroyed the coastal wetlands they depend on for food. And now sea levels are rising, faster in many places than remaining coastal wetlands and mudflats can keep up.

A bleak scenario, once again. We could dream of not only agreeing to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees C but also to recover the coastlines, to back our development away from the wetlands, mudflats and beaches, to eliminate sea walls instead of building them to hide behind, and to free rivers of their dams.

Since all that is not going to happen, let us at least agree to protect the coastal wetlands not just for the absorbing barrier they provide us against encroaching seas, but also for the food they supply for the migrants in critical areas like Delaware Bay and the Yellow Sea.

And let’s try, if we can, to slow the rising of the seas.

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Invasion of the King Crabs

Friday, November 20th, 2015

We’re increasingly familiar with the idea that in the marine world as the sea gets warmer, organisms will move north (or south) to higher latitudes to escape the growing heat. Much less familiar is the idea that in some places animals from very deep water will move into more shallow areas, and create havoc with the ecosystem existing there.

Enter King Crabs. These are large, sometimes huge, made at least a little famous by Alaskan King Crabs that starred in the reality show The Deadliest Catch. Around the globe, they tend to live in very cold, deep water, preying on bottom living mollusks, echinoderms and other crustaceans by crushing them.

Alaskan King Crabs are abundant on the sea floor of the Gulf of Alaska, the target of one of the world's more risky fisheries (freerepublic.com)

Alaskan King Crabs are abundant on the sea floor of the Gulf of Alaska, the target of one of the world’s more risky fisheries (freerepublic.com)

A couple of other species live on the Continental Slope along the West Antarctic Peninsula, seaward of the more shallow Continental Shelf, mostly at depths between 2000 and 800 meters where water temperature varies from 0.4 degree C up to a balmy 1.16 degree C.

Like other King Crabs, they can tolerate very cold water, but there is a limit. They function well down to about 1 degree centigrade, but when the temperature is colder than about half a degree C, their magnesium physiology breaks down and they become paralysed and die.

Antarctic King Crab, Neolithodes yaldwini. The male is the larger one, guarding a female who he will mate with as soon as she molts (Katrien Heinman, nature.com)

Antarctic King Crab, Neolithodes yaldwini. The male is the larger one, guarding a female who he will mate with as soon as she molts (Katrien Heinman, nature.com)

Though that is certainly cold, sea temperatures on the adjacent more shallow Antarctic Continental Shelf remain even colder, a little below zero in all seasons, creating a lethal ceiling above the King Crabs deeper on the Slope.

This is all a relatively recent phenomenon. About 40 million years ago when the force of continental drift finally pushed Antarctica free from South America, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed, isolating the Southern Continent from the influence of more northerly warmer water, freezing the glaciers on the continental mass, and super-cooling the shallow seas on the Continental Shelf.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed 40 million years ago, isolating and freezing Antarctica (globalspec.com)

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed 40 million years ago, isolating and freezing Antarctica (globalspec.com)

For 40 million years, King Crabs have not been able to penetrate the colder shelf waters, and nor have predatory bony fish, sharks or rays, also unable to tolerate such cold temperatures. For 40 million years, the bottom living animals, mostly suspension feeders except for some predatory starfish and worms, have become lightly skeletized, soft, in the absence of the shell-crushing predators.

They remind us of the bottom living Paleozoic community last seen before fish (and King Crabs) evolved, 350 million years ago, a rare and possibly unique ecosystem today.

The animals living on the sea floor on the Antarctic Continental Shelf are unusual, soft-bodied echinoderms, mollusks and worms, susceptible to predation by King Crabs (nature.com)

The animals living on the sea floor on the Antarctic Continental Shelf are unusual, soft-bodied echinoderms, mollusks and worms, susceptible to predation by shell-crushing King Crabs (nature.com)

But of course now things are changing. The Antarctic seas, especially around the West Antarctic Peninsula, are warming unusually quickly. Stronger winds, driven by climate warming, intensify the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, lifting warmer, denser, saltier water up from 4000 m over the lip of the Shelf and spilling into deeper canyons.

Marguerite Bay, West Antarctic Peninsula, where King Crabs have begun to appear in the deeper water canyons on the Shelf (pnas.com)

Marguerite Bay, West Antarctic Peninsula, where King Crabs have begun to appear in the deeper water canyons on the Shelf (pnas.com)

King Crabs are moving up into some of these canyons. The cold water ceiling above them on the Shelf is still there, but it is rising. Over the next decades – perhaps sooner than later – King Crabs will invade the rest of the Shelf.

The diverse deskeletized animals now living there will be then be history for they have no defenses against the King Crabs. The current fragile ecosystem will be disrupted, shifting toward something probably very similar to deep cold-water ecosystems elsewhere where King Crabs thrive.

At depths where King Crabs are common (black bars) potential prey (the other bar graphs) are greatly reduced (pnas.com)

At depths where King Crabs are common (black bars) potential prey (the other bar graphs) are greatly reduced (pnas.com)

This loss of an unusual ecosystem will be unfortunate, but there are obvious limits to our ability to be the stewards we might like to be. Clearly we have much more immediate and pressing problems to deal with. Still, we do know that there is so much that we but dimly understand about our current ecosystems, and as a result much of the change that lies ahead is simply unpredictable.

At least we can now add to the mix the idea that marine ecosystem change can come from any direction, including from below.

Enjoy your King Crabs – they look like survivors.

Enjoy your meal (clubnews.com)

Enjoy your meal (clubnews.com)

Global Bleaching of Corals. Again

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

When water temperatures rise a degree or two, corals expel their symbiotic algae – zooxanthellae – and turn white. It happens frequently on a local scale, and the affected corals usually recover when the sea cools again.

When bleaching occurs, symbiotic algae are lost, the coral (this one is a brain coral) will die and crumble unless sea temperature drops and the zooxanthellae can recolonize the coral (compareinnovationtoronto.com)

When bleaching occurs, symbiotic algae are lost, the coral (this one is a brain coral) will die and crumble unless sea temperature drops and the zooxanthellae can recolonize the coral (compareinnovationtoronto.com)

Summer sea surface temperature just one degree warmer than usual, lasting for 4-6 weeks, is enough to start the bleaching – corals clearly live, and thrive, at temperatures close to those that bleach and kill them.

When much of the sea surface around the tropics remains warmer for a prolonged period, the bleaching spreads, corals die and reefs are heavily damaged. The last really major global bleaching event occurred in 1997-98, while a less extensive one occurred in 2010.

A now iconic picture of part of a reef in Samoa taken before and after the onset of the current global bleaching event (sciencealert.com)

A now iconic picture of part of a reef in Samoa taken before and after the onset of the current global bleaching event (sciencealert.com)

And now, starting before the current El Nino emerged and compounded by the huge, warm ‘Pacific Blob’, we are well into another global bleaching event. With the current El Nino now growing into something fierce, this bleaching event could last a couple of years, long enough to kill and crumble a lot of the corals.

NOAA has produced a remarkable, satellite-based interactive global coral watch website, where you can observe the conditions change over the next few months. It’s scary, but it’s fascinating.

Coral bleaching isn’t new, but the 1997-1998 event was the greatest in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Now we have another of the same or greater magnitude. Again most reefs will be damaged. Last time, global loss was about 10%. This time it will be as much or more. It is a devastating prognosis.

NOAA October 2015 prediction of 60% probability of coral bleaching over the next four months (coralwatch.noaa.gov)

NOAA October 2015 prediction of 60% probability of coral bleaching over the next four months (coralwatch.noaa.gov)

Some protective efforts that would reduce other sources of stress on the reefs are possible, for instance reducing both pollution and overfishing, especially of algal grazers. Closing reefs to all fishing would be best. Unlikely perhaps, but not impossible.

We can as well look for other lines of hope. For instance, corals vary latitudinally in their tolerance of thermal stress, and there appears to be a genetic basis to this variation. In tanks at the National Sea Simulator at Melbourne, biologists are growing different strains of coral species under conditions of warmer temperatures and higher acidity, hoping to select for those more tolerant of the coming conditions, planning then to seed them back on the reefs. Of course this is worth doing.

Sea surface temperatures have been higher than normal for the past year, not related to the Pacific Blob or to El Nino. Now they will remain high or higher as the El Nino heat spreads and lingers (dnlr.hawaii.gov)

Sea surface temperatures have been higher than normal for the past year, not related to the Pacific Blob or to El Nino. Now they will remain high or higher as the El Nino heat spreads and lingers (dnlr.hawaii.gov)

Yet the Great Barrier Reef covers 135,000 square miles and since 1985 half of its coral cover has been lost; little remains of Caribbean coral reefs; the coral reefs around Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific have never been under such stress. The future of coral reefs is really bleaker than ever.

For now, the Pacific Blob will eventually dissipate. The new El Nino will slowly play itself out. Sea temperatures will drop back at least in the direction of normal. Parts of coral reefs not too damaged should slowly recover once again.

But we are warned: sea temperatures rising because of climate change rather than El Ninos will not revert to past ‘normal’ temperatures. At best their rise can be slowed by enlightened global agreement to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases,

The current global coral bleaching event is growing as we head into December’s UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris – a conference that is perilously close to being our last chance to take significant global action. Threatened, damaged, bleaching, crumbling coral reefs are not a bad metaphor for the state of our planet’s climate to remind global politicians that no longer can we afford politics as usual.

 The very odd logo for the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP 21, Nov 30-Dec11: the whole world will be watching (unfccc.int)

The very odd logo for the UN conference on Climate Change, COP 21, Nov 30-Dec11: the whole world will be watching (unfccc.int)

They – we – really have to do it this time.

Mapping the Bottom of the Seas

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

We are a map loving species – from our local streets and highways to the whole universe. Now we have a new map of the bottom of the world’s oceans, and it is wonderful.

It is digitized, built from 14,400 data points pulled from data gathered by research cruises over the past half century and now converted to a continuous map by Big Data experts at the University of Sydney. Thirteen types of bottom sediments are color coded, and the whole globe is there on your screen to rotate in any direction and explore.

Take it for a spin: it is irresistible.

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

One view of the digitized seafloor (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Seafloor sediments distinguished by source and nature of particles, and are coded by color (geologyin.com)

Published in the current issue of Geology, this is really the first new view of the ocean floor in 40 years, and not surprisingly, it is full of surprises.

First, it is a much more complex patchwork of the microfossil remains of diatoms, radiolarians, sponge spicules, shell and coral fragments, along with sand, silt, clay, mud and vulcaniclastics than all previous maps had led us to expect.

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

Radiolarian ooze is made up of the skeletons of protistan radiolarians which are microscopic single celled animals that secrete silicon skeletons and feed with pseudopods that stick out through the holes in skeleton (micro.magnet.fsu.edu)

And then, also unexpected, surface productivity of phytoplankton diatoms (a major carbon source) is not reflected by the abundance of seafloor abundance of diatom ooze (a carbon sink) – we understand less than we thought we did.

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the  surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Diatom ooze is made up of the silicon skeletons of phytoplankton diatoms, each species with its own unique architecture, which are so abundant in the surface waters (ucmp.berekely.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

Calcareous ooze contains the calcareous skeletons of other single celled protistans like coccolithophores (serc .carleton.edu)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

The chalky cliffs of Dover were once coccolithophore sediments (wordsinmocean.com)

In fact, at stake is our much broader understanding of the deep ocean’s response to climate change. We need to understand the global geochemical cycles, the behavior of deep-water currents, and the transport of ocean sediments, and this map provides a framework for asking – and answering – more detailed questions.

What we see now is a more complicated, less predictable picture of the global seafloor. If we understand why sediments on the seafloor are where they are, we have another window into reconstructing the past environments of our planet, a valuable key to understanding what is now occurring.

Perhaps most of all, we are reminded once again by a new and global map like this new one that in our local piece of our galaxy our planet is a small, isolated biological and physical oasis where change in any one component may radically influence all the others in ways we can increasingly monitor and struggle to understand, with a history we can increasingly explore.

And of course with a near-future that is so uncertain yet we must still plan for.

This map can only help.

The Growth of the Pacific Blob

Friday, June 26th, 2015

It began as a persistent high pressure weather pattern over the Gulf of Alaska in the autumn of 2013. With more sunshine and lighter winds, it prevented the usual extent of winter cooling of the sea surface, and so it caused an offshore region of warmer than usual water to form.

And then it expanded into something huge, got named The Blob, and sea surface temperatures rose more than 3 degrees C (5 degrees F) warmer than average, warmer than anything on record. During 2014-2015 it moved shoreward bringing warm weather to the West coast from Alaska south to the North West States, reducing the snow pack and all that implies.

The Pacific Blob has expanded into three major parts extending south along the west coast of North America. The darker the red, the warmer the sea surface temperature relative to recent averages (noaa.gov)

The Pacific Blob has expanded into three major parts extending south along the west coast of North America. The darker the red, the warmer the sea surface temperature relative to recent averages (noaa.gov)

It also has also created relative havoc in the coastal waters: the southerly flowing cool coastal California Current has weakened, warmer water has pushed north, and sub-tropical species of fish are turning up in the Gulf of Alaska.

This past month a most astonishing crab, the Red Tuna Crab, Pleuroncodes planipes, has also turned up, stranding by the thousands upon thousands on the shores of Southern California from Ocean Beach to La Jolla. This is a crab that looks as if it wants to be a shrimp. It spends its whole life cycle swimming in the water column off the bottom, voraciously eating plankton, forming immense swarms, fed on by whales, porpoises, larger fish and seabirds Not by humans though, because of some toxins it carries.

The Red Tuna Crab Pleuroncodes planipes swims up and down in the water column, its uncurled tail making it look more like a shrimp, but it is still a crab (scripps.ucsd.edu)

The Red Tuna Crab Pleuroncodes planipes swims up and down in the water column, its uncurled tail making it look more like a shrimp, but it is still a crab (scripps.ucsd.edu)


Vast swarms of the Red Tuna Crab have stranded this past month on beaches in Southern California (usatoday.com)

Vast swarms of the Red Tuna Crab have stranded this past month on beaches in Southern California (usatoday.com)

Normally it lives in the warmer water of the Gulf of California and along the west coast of Baja. Subject to winds, tides and currents, in warmer years – El Nino years, for instance – stranded swarms are not that unusual on the shores of southern California. But of course, the past couple of years have not been El Nino years.

They have been the years of The Pacific Blob.

We don’t know yet the full extent of the impact of The Blob. But fish that have been seen far north of their regular sub-tropical coastal waters, even to the Gulf of Alaska, include skipjack tuna and albacore, Ocean Sunfish and Thresher Sharks. The strandings of the siphonophore jellyfish Velella in the summer of 2014, the starving Cassin’s Auklets, the starving California Sea Lion pups now dying along many parts of the west coast – these are all probably victims of The Blob.

Among many associated problems, fewer nutrients are reaching the warmer surface waters, chlorophyll amounts have dropped – affecting plankton abundance – and a lack of small fish for foraging adult auklets and sea lions may explain their starving and dying offspring.

Cassin's Auklets dive for fish to feed their offspring. Starving birds indicates a lack of fish (pressdemocrat.com)

Cassin’s Auklets dive for fish to feed their offspring. Starving birds indicates a lack of fish (pressdemocrat.com)

How will the salmon of the Alaskan, BC and Northwest coasts be affected? Well, we’ll see soon enough, but it cannot be good.

Why did this all happen? There is an intriguing link to weather patterns in the southern tropical Pacific, but nothing certain. Is there a link to climate change? We don’t know. How will it end? It just needs the winds of the Gulf of Alaska to pick up again, and all should return to normal.

The elusive normal. What we know is that most marine animals are closely tied to the sea temperatures around them. We know that now, finally, after several years of inaction, a new and seemingly major El Nino is developing, the first like this since the crippling one of 1997-19978, and the warm coastal temperatures will persist.

At the least we are probably getting a preview of what warming oceans will be like on the west coast in the decades ahead. Not reassuring perhaps, but fascinating none the less.

But normal? There is no normal. Perhaps there never was.

WoRMS

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

We seem to have a compulsion to name every species that we notice. Whatever the reasons, such knowledge is increasingly important to us.

For example, is there currently a new, 6th Mass Extinction underway and caused by us? To know how quickly species are going extinct, we have to know what species actually exist.

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction The Sixth Extinction - a terrific and disturbing book (grist'org)

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction The Sixth Extinction – a terrific and disturbing book (grist.org)

This is not always easy, and trying to identify the species that live in our oceans has been particularly difficult. There we have mostly cared about species of commercial interest or unusually large or exotic species, yet most marine species are small, cryptic, buried, and/or in deep water.

And other questions about marine communities also now absorb us: Are marine coastal communities shifting to higher latitudes as the sea around them warms? How does over-fishing, eliminating the top predators, restructure communities? How much does coastal development and pollution modify coastal communities? How are changes in sea currents and temperatures affecting prey species for migrating fish, marine mammals, sea turtles and sea birds?

To even start to answer questions like these, questions whose answers are critical to our own long-term stability and well-being, we need to know what species actually exist, and we need to have confidence in the accuracy of their identification. This requires a lot of energy, patience and expertise.

Enter WoRMS, the fine acronym for the World Registery of Marine Species. For the past few decades scientists have been confirming the identity of all 420,000 marine species that have been described as species since the 1700s. 190,400 turned out to be duplicates – leaving 228,450 legitimate species.

The rough periwinkle Littorina saxatilis lives in the high intertidal of temperate rocky shores, and was known by 113 different names: now just by one (aphotomarine.com)

The rough periwinkle Littorina saxatilis lives in the high intertidal of temperate rocky shores, and was known by 113 different names: now just by one (aphotomarine.com)

Of the legitimate species, 18,000 are fish, 816 are squid, 93 are whales and dolphins, the list goes on and on. Since 2008, 1000 new species have been added to the lists, including 122 species of shark and rays.

The Australian Humpbacked Dolphin Sousa saholensis was recently discovered (marinespecies.org)

The Australian Humpbacked Dolphin Sousa saholensis was recently discovered (marinespecies.org)

That all sounds impressive – but marine scientists estimate that between half a million and 2 million marine species have yet to be described.

We obviously are not going to describe everything before it goes it extinct, though it seems a pity not to know what we’re losing. What WoRMS is offering us though is reliable data, knowledge we can use with confidence as we try to conserve the marine communities that exist and as we try to understand and perhaps mitigate the impact of the global changes that are upon us.

WoRMS is a huge asset. We need to ensure a new generation of experts will be trained to keep the work going.

There is no substitute for accurate knowledge.
For evidence.

The Ruby Seadragon, a new species of a very odd  fish that lives between Australia and new Guinea (marinespecies.org)

The Ruby Seadragon, a new species of a very odd fish that lives between Australia and new Guinea (marinespecies.org)

Old Dominion Leads the Way

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Old Dominion University is in Norfolk, Virginia, a small city right on the edge of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. It is part of a metropolitan area of almost 2 million people called Hampton Roads that also includes Newport News and Virginia Beach.

Hampton Roads is one of the two most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the US to rapid sea level rise (the other is New Orleans).

Sea level is rising at about twice the rate of the global average along the coast north of Cape Hatteras, centered on Chesapeake Bay (sciencenews.org)

Sea level is rising at about twice the rate of the global average along the coast north of Cape Hatteras, centered on Chesapeake Bay (sciencenews.org)

Hampton Roads , a complex metropolitan region at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (hamptonroadsof.org)

Hampton Roads , a complex metropolitan region at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (hamptonroadsof.org)

Global sea levels rise as a result of the melting land-based glaciers of Greenland and the West Antarctic Peninsula as well as the thermal expansion of warming waters – an average of 22 cm (8 in) since 1930. What makes Hampton Roads of special interest is that sea levels there are rising twice as fast as the average.

Old Dominion University has established the Center of Sea Level Rise and the Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute (MARI). It has chosen to be in the thick of it all.

Why such rapid sea level rise? And why there?

Partly it is because the land in that region is also sinking – the mile thick glaciers of the last glaciation did not reach so far south, but they compressed the land they did cover, forcing the land beyond them to bulge up. Since the glaciers withdrew, the land they compressed has risen again, while the bulge to their south is still falling back to its pre-glaciation state. Along with subsidence of the land from extraction of groundwater, this accounts for about half of the current rapid rise of sea level.

Sea level rise north of Cape Hatteras is about half due to recent climate change, and about half due to the land level readjustments following the retreat of the glaciers (americanroads.us

Sea level rise north of Cape Hatteras is about half due to recent climate change, and about half due to the land level readjustments following the retreat of the glaciers (americanroads.us

So Hampton Roads has immediate challenges, finding ways to adapt to the sea level rise sooner than most coastlines elsewhere. Coastal beaches and wetlands will certainly deteriorate, and the low lying parts of the coastal cities will be flooded. Norfolk is especially vulnerable. Pretty well everyone living there now knows this.

Old Dominion has taken the lead in a pilot project aimed at developing a comprehensive government and community cooperation in preparing for further sea level rise in Hampton Roads. In the past couple of weeks MARI has hosted seminars involving residents and state officials, focusing on resilience and environmental engineering and on perceptions of climate change and sea level rise, encouraging a willingness to address change.

In the past year it held a Rising to the Challenge Conference on sea level rise with strong bipartisan support from Congressional ans State politicians – in itself a rare and extraordinary event.

And everything, in the context of preparedness and resiliency, is on the table: tide gates, levees, flood walls, raised buildings and roads, marshes created to absorb storm surge, abandonment of low lying areas, elimination of subsidized flood insurance – the list is very real and very serious. The cities of Washington,D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia all have reason to be watching closely.

Part of the US navy of 2012 at Norfolk Naval Base - which covers 4 miles of coastline and has 7 miles of piers (wikipedia.org).

Part of the US navy of 2012 at Norfolk Naval Base – which covers 4 miles of coastline and has 7 miles of piers (wikipedia.org).

And then there is the military. Nearby is the Norfolk Naval Base, the world’s largest naval base. Old Dominion has also recently hosted discussions by the military on how to prepare the naval base for the tidal flooding and extreme storm surges associated with sea level rise, while contemplateing the immense upheaval of having to move.

Meanwhile, home owners in the lowest parts of Norfolk can find no buyers for their homes, and as one pastor says
“I don’t know many churches that have to put the tide chart on their Web site so people know whether they can get to church.”

So: Go, Old Dominion. The whole world isn’t watching, but probably should be.

(iawrestle.com)

(iawrestle.com)

Caring for Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Sea turtles are endangered for all the reasons you might imagine, including pollution, plastics, propellers, nest destruction, egg poaching, disease, global warming, and bycatch from trawls, seines and long-lines. Through a lot of effort over the past 3-4 decades, their crash toward extinction has been slowed, and in some places some recovery has occurred – of course not to past population sizes, but at least away from the brink.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle, the smallest of sea turtles,  lives mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, reaches sexually maturity at 10-15 years old (marinelife.about.com)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, the smallest of sea turtles, lives mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, reaches sexually maturity at 10-15 years old (marinelife.about.com)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles may have come the closest to extinction. They mostly live in inshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico where they forage for crabs. For a long time no one seemed to know where they nested, but in the mid 1940s a single nesting beach on the Mexican coast, Playa de Rancho Nuevo, was discovered. There possibly 120,000 females hauled themselves up the beach over a period of several days, dug their nests and laid their eggs, an extraordinary and tumultuous event we call an ‘arribada’. Several arribadas appear to have occurred on that one beach each summer, the same females returning to lay more eggs.

Females come ashore in large numbers over a few days, an arribada. Arribadas occur several times during the summer, involving the same renesting females (noaa.com)

Females come ashore in large numbers over a few days, an arribada. Arribadas occur several times during the summer, involving the same renesting females (noaa.com)

We know now that females nest every second year, so the total adult population at that time must have been about half a million. The beach was so crowded that females arriving on the second or third day often inadvertently dug up and destroyed the eggs of their predecessors as they scooped out holes to lay their own eggs.

Though the arribadas were unknown to biologists until then, they were certainly well known to people living along that coast who quickly dug up most of the nests and distributed the eggs among the coastal communities. Those were not the days of regulations.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle numbers plunged. Though protected by the US Endangered Species Act in 1970, only 700 females arrived to nest in the summer of 1985. But the arribada beach became tightly protected and monitored; many nests were moved to concentrated sites where they could be watched more easily; other nests were dug up, their eggs transplanted to other beaches along the Texas coast, hatchlings allowed to crawl to the surf, then recaptured and raised in captivity for 9-11 months to plate-sized juveniles, and then released in the Gulf of Mexico.

By 2010 about 7000 females once again nested, not just on the arribada beach, but also in small numbers where the eggs had been translocated. Not the numbers of the 1940s, but enough to think recovery was underway. A rare success, it was the result of huge coordinated effort by untold numbers of volunteers as well as biologists, communities, and government agencies from two countries.

Numbers of nests on the arribada beach in Mexico increased remarkably after prolonged efforts to protect the beach (esasuccess.net)

Numbers of nests on the arribada beach in Mexico increased remarkably after prolonged efforts to protect the beach (esasuccess.net)

Transplants of eggs to Texas beaches began in 1978. Now there are about 200 nests scattered among a number of protected beaches (esasuccess.org)

Transplants of eggs to Texas beaches began in 1978. Now there are about 200 nests scattered among a number of protected beaches (esasuccess.org)

Since 2010, things have not been so good. The BP oil spill damaged the main foraging region along the north shore of the Gulf, oiling and killing around 5000 of the foraging turtles. Causal or not, nesting numbers flatlined and now have declined despite all the efforts to protect them: in 2014 only 11500 nests were counted, indicating a drop to around 3-4000 nesting females and so an adult population of about 12,000.

Number of nests increased impressively until 2010, but not since (seaturtles.org)

Number of nests increased impressively until 2010, but not since (seaturtles.org)

To complicate the picture, many juveniles drift and swim out of the Gulf and head north with the Gulf Stream along the East Coast. Some of them reach Cape Cod Bay and even further into the Gulf of Maine, a risky venture since at sea temperatures less than 17-18 degrees C (65 degrees F), they are stunned and tend to die if they are not somehow soon rescued and warmed up again.

Until recently, each autumn only a few washed up stunned on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay where searching volunteers found them, warmed them up, and sent survivors back to Florida often through informal connections with air pilots. But this past autumn more than 1200 stunned juveniles washed up on those beaches, swamping local abilities to recover and transport them back south. Many more volunteers became involved, searching the beaches through the autumn months; stunned turtles were sent to a wide assortment of aquariums to recover them; transporting them back to the Gulf of Mexico was much more challenging.

Two no longer stunned  juveniles getting ready to travel back to the Gulf of Mexico

Two no longer stunned juveniles getting ready to travel back to the Gulf of Mexico

Once again, this has involved a huge labor-intensive and expensive effort by volunteers, biologists, and government agencies.

Now with declining numbers of nesting females and increasing numbers of stunned juveniles, we are nagged by the question of whether all the effort is making a difference. Comparable efforts of course struggle to protect and conserve the other species of sea turtles as well. They all remain endangered.

The case of Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles though is not reassuring. It has involved such huge effort to protect one species, with every conservation ingredient one could hope for. People truly care, and still recovery may fail, and fail because we cannot protect the animals from catastrophic oil spills or from the increasing and unpredictable stresses of climate change.

Hatchlings rush to water's edge. Much effort has been invested to help Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles recover, but has it been effective? (seathos.org)

Hatchlings rush to the water’s edge. Much effort has been invested to help Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles recover, but has it been effective? (seathos.org)

Though few marine species, including seabirds, marine mammals, fish, shellfish and other invertebrates have actually been reduced to extinction, population sizes of so many of them have declined precipitously, and local extinctions are common.

As a recent major review of marine ‘defaunation’ establishes, we are on the cusp of developing inshore waters in the ways we have developed terrestrial ecosystems over the past few millennia, development that has resulted in the extinction of so many terrestrial species. The review concludes that although much damage has already occurred, it is not too late to prevent marine extinctions on a similar scale – through protected areas, enlightened management and careful development.

But there is so much that is threatened, even in the rosiest of scenarios. We have hard choices ahead. How do we decide how much effort to invest in trying to recover one species, like Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, when whole communities and ecosystems are at risk? Can somehow we protect both?

Either way, our energetic and global effort is essential.
And a world without sea turtles is a world immeasurably reduced.

The Shift North in the Gulf of Maine

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

The Big Shift North continues unabated in the Gulf of Maine.

In November 2014, cod fishing in the Gulf was banned. Some cod are still there but they are concentrating in colder, deeper water. Fishermen think this is just another conspiracy among scientists and regulators to keep their jobs, and think there are plenty of fish out there. There aren’t. Whatever cod are left from hundreds of years of overfishing and mismanagement, most have left, moving north.

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

A 3D view of the Gulf of Maine mostly enclosed by the fishing banks, dropping beyond them into very deep water (gomcensus.org)

That wonderfully sweet Northern Shrimp, Pandalus borealis, has also again failed to show up in the Gulf this winter in any numbers, cancelling the winter fishing season for them. They too have shifted north to colder waters.

Then there are the lobsters, living in unprecedented numbers in the Gulf of Maine – partly because their predators like cod have mostly vanished, partly because of the warmer coastal waters. Their region of greatest abundance on the Maine coast has also shifted north from the central coast to close to the Canadian border.

And Green Crabs, still considered invasive and inedible, have exploded in numbers on the shores of the Gulf which just a few decades ago was its northernmost range. They eat soft-shelled clams, decimate eel grass beds, and really need now to be harvested for something.

Meanwhile species from the warmer waters south of Cape Cod are extending north at least seasonally into the Gulf.

Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles drifted north of Cape Cod in the autumn in far larger numbers than ever before – where they then still got stunned by the cooler waters of the Gulf, making the rescue effort by beach walking volunteers a far greater challenge.

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

Black Sea Bass, easy to fish for, excellent to eat, are increasingly common in the Gulf of Maine each summer (hookedup.net)

More dramatic is the seasonal arrival of Black Sea Bass that live along the coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Cod, separated into northern and southern stocks by Cape Hatteras. The fish forage along rock piles and ledges, pilings and jetties, quite easily caught by pots and by hook and line. They mature first as females, and then as they grow larger some shift to become males – they are protogynous hermaphrodites. They supported thriving commercial and recreational fisheries until they were almost fished out. Then amazingly serious regulations limiting quota, season, and sizes were enforced and the stock, especially north of Hatteras, has recovered reasonably well.

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Black Sea Bass were overfished but have now recovered enough to support a sustainable commercial fishery. Recreational fishing rates are at about the same level as commercial (nefsc.noaa.gov)

Now Black Sea Bass have become common enough in summer in the Gulf of Maine as far as mid-coast Maine for fishing to be regulated there as well. They eat anything they can from the seafloor, including small juvenile lobsters, but enthused recreational fishing will probably prevent them from becoming a major lobster predator.

And of course the list goes on – starfish, Blue Crabs, algae, puffins – species shift north within and out of the Gulf, following the colder water, and they shift north into the Gulf, following the warmer water. A major reorganization of the entire ecosystem is well underway.

Where is all this heading? The community may not stabilize until sometime after ocean temperatures stabilize, if that ever happens.

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

Sea surface temperature of the gulf of Maine has been warming gradually over the past decades, but has warmed even faster since 2004 (seascapemodeling.org)

We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster, now at about 2 degrees per decade, than almost anyplace else besides the polar regions, so the rate of change in the community is unusually rapid. But it does let us think about the kinds of global changes we will expect to face everywhere else.

At the least we can recognize that complex, unpredictable community shifts are occurring and will continue to occur, and that we need now to plan for the changes. We will have to adapt our regulatory practices for managing species of both commercial and recreational interest, finding ways to respond rapidly.

For what the Gulf of Maine is telling us is that we must expect everything to change. Soon.