U.S. Water News Online
SEATTLE -- With a record number of dead seabirds washing up
on West Coast beaches from central California to British Columbia,
marine biologists are raising the alarm about rising ocean
temperatures and dwindling plankton populations.
"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
Coastal ocean temperatures are 2 to 5 degrees above normal, which
may be related to a lack of upwelling, in which cold, nutrient-rich
water is brought to the surface.
Upwelling is fueled by northerly winds that sweep out nearshore
waters and bring cold water to the surface. The process starts the
marine food chain, fueling algae and shrimplike krill populations
that feed small fish, which then provide a source of food for a
variety of sea life from salmon to sea birds and marine mammals.
On Washington beaches, bird surveyors in May typically find an
average of one dead Brandt's cormorant every 34 miles of beach. 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, adding that she expected
June figures to show a similar trend.
This spring's cool, wet weather brought southwesterly wind to
coastal areas and very little northerly wind, said Nathan Mantua, a
research scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University
of Washington. Without northerly winds, there is no upwelling and
plankton stay at lower depths.
"In 50 years, this has never happened," said Bill Peterson, an
oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration in Newport, Ore. "If this continues, we will have a
food chain that is basically impoverished from the very lowest
Problems at the bottom of the food chain could also be related to
decreases in juvenile salmon populations this summer.
NOAA's June and July surveys of juvenile salmon off the coasts of
Oregon, Washington and British Columbia indicate a 20 percent to 30
percent drop in populations, compared with surveys from 1998-2004.
"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.
Scientists tracking anomalies along Washington's coast reported
the appearance of warm-water plankton species and scores of jellyfish
piling up on beaches. A Guadalupe fur seal, native to South America,
was found dead in Ocean Shores.
Parrish and a scientist near San Francisco report changes in bird
breeding. Both said starvation stress could be the cause for
decreased breeding and increased bird deaths.
Peterson, the NOAA oceanographer, said many scientists suspect
climate change may be involved.
"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.
Parrish cautioned that 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,"
Return to the
U.S. Water News' past archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.