Archive for March, 2016

Mar 30 2016

North Coast crab boats finally head out to sea


BODEGA BAY — Long-idled fishermen settled Tuesday on an opening price for Dungeness crab, transforming Bodega Harbor into a beehive of activity as they streamed out to open waters to begin the commercial crabbing season at last.

Radiating relief and even cheer as they stocked up for the sleepless days and nights ahead, captains and deckhands wasted no time leaving the docks once stakeholders at the state’s major ports reached agreement on a price.

Crab should hit local markets by the weekend, lured by thousands of traps baited with chunks of squid and mackerel cut up while still frozen on the docks Tuesday.

“We’re just happy to go to work,” said Mark Gentry, a 30-year veteran of the fishery, who had only to finish pumping fuel into the tank of his boat, Rampage, before he and his crew could depart Spud Point Marina on Tuesday afternoon.

“Ready to go play,” said Sean Amoroso, captain of the Donna Mia. “Ready to play and get a paycheck.”

The state’s Dungeness crab catch is typically valued above $60 million, peaking in 2011-12 at $95.5 million. Crabbers make the vast majority of their income in the season’s first few weeks. The opening price agreed to Tuesday is $2.90 a pound, just under the $3 at which they started the 2014-15 season.

Many of the fisherman and, especially, their crews have been through desperate times in recent months as an unprecedented delay in the opening of the commercial season dragged on week after week, caused by an outbreak of harmful algae and a related neurotoxin called domoic acid.

The season normally opens Nov. 15 south of the Mendocino County line and Dec. 1 in waters north of there. The closure meant crabbers missed out on the lucrative Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s markets, with months still to go before the fishery would reopen — though they didn’t know it at the time.

When state regulators earlier this month finally notified commercial crabbers they could begin harvesting the succulent crustaceans last Saturday, the delay had cost them 4 1/2 months.

They waited at dock several days more while test crabs were fetched, cooked and measured to ensure they met the threshold of 25 percent meat. Crabs from different ports came in above the mark, North Coast Fisheries President Mike Lucas said Monday.

Fish processors and fishermen in Bodega Bay, Half Moon Bay and San Francisco all agreed by late Tuesday morning to start the season at $2.90 a pound, inciting a mad dash to acquire bait, fuel, groceries and other necessities no one wanted to buy until they could be sure of covering their costs.

By afternoon, dozens of boats had motored from the harbor out to open ocean as those remaining hustled to join them.

“This is what we love to do,” Annabelle deck hand Merlin Kolb, 45, said as he cut bait and loaded it into plastic containers.

His crew mate, Diego Quiroz, grinned. “We’re going to try to get some money,” Quiroz, 52, said. “Been working for $10 an hour just to make it.”

It’s unclear what can be salvaged of this year’s season before the crab shed their shells and fishing is no longer feasible without harming future generations. Many local crabbers said they hoped to eke at least several weeks out of the fishery, if not a month or two.

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Mar 25 2016

CFOOD: Molly Lutcavage’s Atlantic Tuna Findings Should be Embraced, Not Discredited as Industry Spin

— Posted with permission of SEAFOODNEWS.COM. Please do not republish without their permission. —

Copyright © 2016

Seafood News



Dr. Molly Lutcavage wrote a piece last week on Medium titled, Environmental Bullies, how conservation ideologues attack scientists who don’t agree with them. Though a summary follows, we encourage you all to read the article.

Lutcavage discusses her paper published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has been making headlines in NPR, but also on smaller online platforms (like Medium).

The paper presents evidence for a new spawning ground for Western Atlantic bluefin tuna that may suggest the species matures earlier and may be more resilient to harvesting than previously thought. The authors suggest that earlier age at maturity and additional spawning grounds likely means the stock biomass and sustainable exploitation rate are both higher than previously thought. Carl Safina and others have painted this finding as “controversial.”

Dr. Lutcavage maintains this “news” should not have been considered controversial. As long ago as the early 1990’s Lutcavage and other scientists working with the New England Aquarium had counted up to one hundred thousand adult bluefin tuna from spotter planes, a total much higher than other estimates of the total stock size. Such findings contradicted Safina and his 1992 push to have Atlantic bluefin listed as Appendix I endangered because as he has said, bluefin is like, “the last buffalo, on the brink of extinction.”

Dr. Lutcavage felt Safina and other NGOs like Pew Oceans have maligned her and her peers for their research because it would, “get in the way of fund-raising campaigns, messages to the media, book sales, rich donors, and perhaps the most insidious – attempts to influence US fisheries and ocean policies.”

Comment by John Sibert, an emeritus professor at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii.

I, like many other scientists, practice my profession with the expectation that my work will be used to improve management policies. However, scientists who choose to work on subjects that intersect with management of natural resources sometimes become targets of special interest pressures. Pressure to change or “spin” research results occurs more often than it should. Pressure arrives in many forms— usually as phone calls from colleagues, superiors, or the media; the pressure seldom arrives in writing.

I have had a long career spanning several fields and institutions and have been pressured to change my views on restriction of industrial activities in intertidal zones in estuaries, on the necessity of international tuna fisheries management agencies, on the limited role of commercial fishing in the deterioration of marine turtle populations, on the lack of accuracy and reliability of electronic fish tags, and on the inefficacy of marine protected areas for tuna conservation.

My most recent experience with pressure came from a stringer who writes for Science magazine. Some colleagues and I had just published a paper that analyzed area-based fishery management policies for conservation of bigeye tuna. Although the paper was very pessimistic about the use of MPAs for tuna fishery management, this particular stringer contacted me about MPAs. We had an exchange of emails in which he repeatedly tried to spin some earlier results on median lifetime displacements of skipjack and yellowfin tuna into an argument supporting creation of MPAs. We then made an appointment to talk “face to face” via Skype. His approach was to play word games with my replies to his questions in order to make it seem that my research supported MPAs. I repeatedly explained to him that our research showed that closing high-seas pockets had no effect whatsoever on the viability of tuna populations and that empirical evidence showed that the closure of the western high seas pockets in 2008 had in fact increased tuna catches. We hung up at that point, and I have no idea what he wrote for Science.

When critics run out of fact, some resort to personal attack. During discussions about turtle conservation in the early 2000s, an attorney for an environmental group told a committee of scientists that we were in effect a bunch of fishing industry apologists with no knowledge of turtles or population dynamics. More recently, my friend and collaborator, Molly Lutcavage was recently subject of a personal attack by Carl Safina after she and her colleagues published an important discovery of a new spawning area for Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. This discovery ought to push the International Commission of the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna to abandon its simplistic two stock approach to management of ABFT. (Whether ICCAT will actually change its approach is another question.) Safina made the outrageously false assertion that the authors’ “… main concern is not recovery, not conservation, but how their findings can allow additional exploitation.” Instead of attacking the messenger and implying that Lutcavage and her colleagues are industry tools, Safina should have embraced the science, supported tuna conservation, and applied pressure in ICCAT to change its antiquated management. By attempting to smear Lutcavage and her NOAA colleagues, he demeans science in general and those of us who try to apply scientific approaches to resource management in particular.

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Mar 20 2016

Ocean acidification takes a toll on California’s tide pools at nighttime

A new study, based on the most extensive set of measurements ever made in tide pools, suggests that ocean acidification will increasingly put many marine organisms at risk by exacerbating normal changes in ocean chemistry that occur overnight. Conducted along California’s rocky coastline, the study shows that the most vulnerable organisms are likely to be those with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons.

Ocean acidification is occurring as the oceans absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where carbon dioxide concentrations are steadily rising due to emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Absorption of carbon dioxide changes seawater chemistry, pushing it toward the lower, acidic end of the pH scale, although it remains slightly alkaline. A small decrease in pH affects the chemical equilibrium of ocean water, reducing the availability of carbonate ions needed by a wide range of organisms to build and maintain structures of calcium carbonate, such as the shells of mussels and oysters.

Kristy Kroeker, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, is a coauthor of the new study, published March 18 in Scientific Reports. “There is a lot of concern about how ocean acidification is going to affect marine species in the future, but most of our understanding comes from laboratory studies where a single organism is exposed to acidified seawater under very controlled conditions for a short period of time,” Kroeker explained. “In reality, every organism is embedded in a complex community that experiences dynamic environmental conditions that will gradually change over time.”

Researchers studied changes in tide pools near the Bodega Marine Laboratory. (Photos by Ken Caldeira/Carnegie)


An extensive set of measurements recorded daily swings in the chemistry of seawater in tide pools.

Calcifying organisms

In the new study, researchers closely monitored conditions in tide pools along California’s rocky coast, which are isolated from the open ocean during low tides. During the daytime, photosynthesis—the mechanism by which plants use the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar, giving off oxygen in the process—takes up carbon dioxide from the seawater and acts to reverse ocean acidification’s effects. At night, however, photosynthesis stops, while the respiration of plants and animals takes up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. This adds carbon dioxide to the seawater and exacerbates the effects of ocean acidification, increasing the risk to calcifying organisms.

“Tide pools are home to lots of different species that regularly experience daily swings in chemistry,” Kroeker said. “Tide pools can experience particularly corrosive seawater during nighttime low tides, when all of the animals are ‘exhaling’ carbon dioxide into the water that has been cut off from the ocean.”

The research team, led by scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science, used these natural nighttime spikes in corrosive conditions to examine how entire communities of marine species respond to natural acidification. Observing a variety of California’s natural rocky tide pools near the Bodega Marine Laboratory, they found that the rate of shell and skeletal growth was not greatly affected by seawater chemistry in the daytime. However, during low tide at night, water in the tide pools became corrosive to calcium carbonate shells and skeletons. The study found evidence that the rate at which these shells and skeletons dissolved during these nighttime periods was greatly affected by seawater chemistry.

“Unless carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly curtailed, we expect ocean acidification to continue to lower the pH of seawater,” said lead author Lester Kwiatkowski of the Carnegie Institution of Science. “This work highlights that even in today’s temperate coastal oceans, calcifying species, such as mussels and coralline algae, can dissolve during the night due to the more acidic conditions caused by community respiration.”

These results highlight the vulnerability of marine species in even the most dynamic conditions to the global process of ocean acidification, Kroeker said.

According to coauther Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, “If what we see happening along California’s coast today is indicative of what will continue in the coming decades, by the year 2050 there will likely be twice as much nighttime dissolution as there is today. Nobody really knows how our coastal ecosystems will respond to these corrosive waters, but it certainly won’t be well.”

The study was a collaborative effort by the Carnegie Institution for Science, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz. This work was funded by the Carnegie Institution for Science, UC Multi-campus Research Initiatives and Programs, and the National Science Foundation.

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Mar 20 2016

Dungeness Crab Fishery

Contacts: Jordan Traverso, CDFW Communications (916) 654-9937


Recreational Dungeness Crab Fishery Open South of Sonoma/Mendocino County Line, Commercial Fishery to Open in Seven Days

Closure of the recreational Dungeness crab fishery south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line has been lifted, and opening of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery – delayed since November – is set for March 26 in the same region.

Recent test results show that domoic acid levels in crabs off the California coast south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line no longer pose a significant human health risk, according to notice given today to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the Fish and Game Commission (Commission) by the director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), after consultation with the Director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

As a result, the director of OEHHA recommends opening the Dungeness crab fishery in this area. Under emergency closure regulations, CDFW will provide commercial Dungeness crab fishermen at least seven days’ notice before the re-opening of the commercial fishery south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line. The fishery will open at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 26. The presoak period, during which commercial fishermen may begin setting gear in place, starts at 6:01 a.m. Friday, March 25.

Closures remain in place north of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line for the Dungeness crab commercial and recreational fisheries. The commercial and recreational rock crab fisheries are closed north of Piedras Blancas Light Station near San Simeon, and in state waters around San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands.

The unusually high domoic acid levels off the coast this fall and winter wrecked a Dungeness crab fishery worth as much as $90 million a year to California’s economy. Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin that can accumulate in shellfish, other invertebrates and sometimes fish. At low levels, domoic acid exposure can cause nausea, diarrhea and dizziness in humans. At higher levels, it can cause persistent short-term memory loss, seizures and may even be fatal.

“This has been a very difficult season for hardworking Californians who have suffered significant financial hardship due to this natural disaster,” said Charlton H. Bonham, Director of CDFW. “We thank the affected communities for their patience and fortitude as we have worked with our partners at CDPH and OEHHA to open a portion of the commercial fishery along a traditional management boundary as recommended by the industry.”

Both the commercial and recreational Dungeness crab seasons are scheduled to end June 30 in the newly opened area, although the CDFW director has authority to extend the commercial season.

In February, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker seeking federal declarations of a fishery disaster and a commercial fishery failure in response to the continued presence of unsafe levels of domoic acid and the corresponding closures of rock crab and Dungeness crab fisheries across California. Should a federal determination be made to declare a disaster and failure, the state and federal agencies will work together to determine the full economic impact of the disaster and, upon appropriation of funds from Congress, provide economic relief to affected crabbers and related businesses.

Despite several weeks of test results that showed crab body meat samples below alert levels, one sample of viscera was slightly above the alert level. Because of this, CDPH and OEHHA strongly recommend that anglers and consumers not eat the viscera (internal organs, also known as “butter” or “guts”) of crabs. CDPH and OEHHA are also recommending that water or broth used to cook whole crabs be discarded and not used to prepare dishes such as sauces, broths, soups or stews. The viscera usually contain much higher levels of domoic acid than crab body meat. When whole crabs are cooked in liquid, domoic acid may leach from the viscera into the cooking liquid. This is being recommended to avoid harm in the event that some crabs taken from an open fishery have elevated levels of domoic acid.

With the upcoming partial opening of the commercial fishery in the state, CDFW recommends that all people fishing for crab refer to the Best Practices Guide, a resource providing tips on how to use crab trap gear in a manner that reduces incidences of whale entanglements. This guide was produced collaboratively by commercial crabbers, agency staff and staff from non-profit organizations during two meetings of the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group that took place late last year.

Pursuant to the emergency regulations adopted by the Commission and CDFW on November 5 and 6, 2015, respectively, the current open and closed areas are as follows:

Areas open to crab fishing include:

• Recreational Dungeness crab fishery along mainland coast south of Sonoma/Mendocino county line – 38° 46.1′ N latitude, near Gualala, Mendocino County

On March 26, 2016 commercial Dungeness crab fishery along mainland coast south of Sonoma/Mendocino county line – 38° 46.1′ N latitude, near Gualala, Mendocino County

• Commercial and recreational rock crab fishery along the mainland coast south of 35° 40′ N latitude (Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Luis Obispo County)

Areas closed to crab fishing include:

• Recreational Dungeness crab fishery north of Sonoma/Mendocino county line – 38° 46.1′ N latitude, near Gualala, Mendocino County

• Commercial Dungeness crab fishery north of Sonoma/Mendocino county line – 38° 46.1′ N latitude, near Gualala, Mendocino County

• Commercial and recreational rock crab fisheries north of 35° 40′ N latitude (Piedras Blancas Light Station)

• Commercial and recreational rock crab fisheries in state waters around San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands.

CDFW will continue to closely coordinate with CDPH, OEHHA and fisheries representatives to extensively monitor domoic acid levels in Dungeness and rock crabs to determine when the fisheries can safely be opened throughout the state.

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Mar 16 2016

Ghostly Octopod Highlights How Little We Know About Life on Earth

This ghostlike octopod is almost certainly an undescribed species and may not belong to any described genus. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Last week, NOAA scientists discovered an unknown species in the deep sea. Not far from the Hawaiian Islands, at almost 4,300 meters depth—that’s more than 2-1/2 miles underwater—the unmanned submersible Deep Discoverer, operating from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, captured video of a ghostly octopod.

Mike Vecchione is a zoologist with the NOAA Fisheries National Systematics Lab who specializes in deep-water cephalopods (a group that includes octopods, squids, and cuttlefishes). Although he wasn’t physically on the cruise, Vecchione was participating remotely that evening via live video feed. In this interview, Vecchione describes this mysterious species and what its discovery says about our understanding of life on Earth.

NOAA Fisheries zoologist Mike VecchioneDr. Mike Vecchione was Chief Scientist on a 2014 expedition aboard NOAA Ship Pisces to sample deep-sea biodiversity.
Photo courtesy of Mike Vecchione.

What was the first thing you thought when you saw this thing? 

Mike Vecchione: I thought, Wow! I’ve never seen one that looks like that before.

OK. What was the second thing you thought?

That this animal doesn’t have fins. The cirrate octopods—those that do have fins on the sides of their bodies—are known to live in the deep sea. But this one is an incirrate octopod. It doesn’t have fins, and until last week we didn’t know that they existed this deep.

The lack of chromatophores, or pigment cells, also stands out—that’s why it’s totally white. Another obvious feature is its diaphanous consistency—it’s sort of jelly-like. That’s common for deep-sea animals because they live in a very food-limited environment, and it takes a lot of food to maintain muscle.

The picture of this animal is sort of misleading because it’s lit—it looks like it could have been taken at some beach near my house. But it wasn’t. Describe the world this creature lives in.

The deep sea is an environment that’s completely alien to us. It’s almost totally dark. It’s extremely cold. And it’s under immense pressure. People want to know, How come the octopod doesn’t get crushed? And, If you brought it up to the surface, would it pop? The answer to both of those questions is no. That’s because there are no gas spaces in the animal to expand or compress, and fluids don’t compress much. The importance of pressure for animals in the deep sea has more to do with the functioning of their enzymes because pressure can change the folding of proteins.

What is this creature’s ecological niche?

All octopods are predators, so it probably feeds on benthic animals of some sort. But other than that, anything I told you would be speculation. We also have no idea how long it lives or how fast it grows.

I keep hearing this creature described as an octopod. Why not octopus?

I use the word octopus for things that are of the genus Octopus, which this isn’t. Octopod is a more general term, and it includes the dumbos, the deep-sea octopods, and the shallow-water true octopuses.

Does this octopod have a name yet?

No. And it won’t, not until we get a specimen of it. Some species have been described based on photo records. But it’s much better to have a specimen so you can see the internal anatomy and get DNA sequences.

Octopods are famous for their dynamic coloration. What’s that coloration used for in most octopods, and what does its absence say about this one?

Octopods use dynamic displays for camouflage. Also if they want to look scary they can puff up and make a dynamic pattern on their bodies. And presumably they use it to communicate with other members of their species. There’s been recent evidence that some shallow-water octopuses will flash different colors before they fight with one another, presumably as a display of dominance. This one doesn’t look like it would be capable of dynamic patterning, and that probably wouldn’t be very useful anyway because it lives in near-total darkness. But we could be wrong about that. We’ve been wrong about many things in the past.

If it’s so dark in the deep sea, why does this octopod have eyes?
This octopod does indeed have eyes and they appear to be functional. But the deep sea isn’t completely dark. Many animals produce bioluminescence, so not everything down there is blind.

This animal probably doesn’t bioluminesce, but that’s just speculation. We used to say that no octopods bioluminesce, but we were wrong about that. Turns out a few of them do.

Why is this discovery important?

The headlines are all emphasizing that this is possibly a new species. To me that’s not the important thing. We know so little about life in the deep sea that new species there are a dime a dozen. But this discovery highlights just how little we know about the deep sea.

I know exploring the deep sea satisfies a very deep human instinct and curiosity, but is there also a more practical reason for going there?

We can’t protect our planet if we don’t know what lives on it and how life functions. We used to think that the deep sea was so remote that we couldn’t affect it. But that’s not true. We impact the deep sea in many ways, from pollution to warming to acidification to expansion of oxygen minimum zones, and we don’t even know what’s down there that we’re affecting. Of all the space on Earth that contains multicellular life, over 95 percent of that is in the deep sea. And we know almost nothing about it.

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Mar 7 2016

S. California Fisheries Hit Hard By Warming Water

Squid have pretty much disappeared from Southern California in the last several months.

“Squid’s kind of our bread and butter. That’s what a lot of us make our payments and survive on,” said Corbin Hanson who fishes off the coast of Southern California.

”It’s extremely frustrating. It’s demoralizing to go out and not be able to catch anything,” Hanson said.

Hanson has not caught any squid for more than four months. Squid is one of California’s largest commercial fisheries, and much of it is exported to countries in Asia and the Mediterranean.

Oceanographer Andrew Leising with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries said unusually warm water is causing squid and other fish to move farther north. At a meeting at the Aquarium of the Pacific, scientists explained one cause of the warming waters is what they call “the blob.”

“During the, say, 30-year record, this event “the blob” stands out far beyond anything we’ve seen in that 30 years. And in terms of that total warmth of the water, it’s pretty much the warmest we’ve ever measured and over an extremely large volume of water,” Leising said.

At its warmest, “the blob” is 4 degrees Celsius above normal temperatures. While “the blob” warms the water’s surface layers, another weather phenomenon called “El Niño” is warming the deeper waters.

“We’re looking at a situation where we have two years of the blob warming the water. Now we’re going into El Niño warming the water, so we really have about three years solid of kind of these warm conditions that have been affecting the fisheries,” Leising said.

Oceanographers said while “the blob” is mostly gone, they don’t know if it will return. The National Weather Service’s Mark Jackson said there is a promising forecast for warm waters caused by El Niño.

“Those waters will cool through the summer, and it looks right now a very distinct possibility that we could be in a La Niña situation next winter,” Jackson added. “That’s where the waters in the eastern and central Pacific will actually cool below normal.”

Cooler waters next winter also mean good news for Corbin Hanson and his crew, but until then, they have to be frugal.

“There’s hardly anything spent on new equipment, new gear. We’re trying to get by and stop the bleeding this year,” he said.

Scientists said if there is a La Niña next winter, squid and other fish should return to Southern California.

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Mar 7 2016

California Sardine Numbers are Low – Why is Oceana Blaming Fishing?

Last week Dr. Geoff Shester, California campaign director for the nonprofit advocacy group Oceana criticized the Pacific Fishery Management Council for the persistence of low numbers of California Sardines. The lack of a population recovery may cause the commercial moratorium to last until 2017.

The author explained this sardine population decline as being 93 percent less than it was in 2007. Dr. Shester does not believe this is because of environmental causes like climate change, El Nino, or natural fluctuations in forage fish species however – instead he blames the management body. “They warned of a population collapse and the fishery management body basically turned a blind eye and continued moving forward with business as usual.”

Shester also cited recent sea lion deaths, specifically 3,000 that washed ashore in California in 2015.

“When fishing pressure occurs during a decline, which is exactly what happened here,” said Dr. Shester. “It puts the stock at such dramatically low levels it impedes any recovery potentially for decades.”

Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr

Dr. Shester’s comments are some of the most dishonest commentary I have seen in the fisheries world.

He knows that the NOAA Scientists and Prof Tim Essington, in work funded by the Pew Foundation, have stated clearly that the decline in sardine abundance is due to natural causes. He also knows that sea lions are not dependent upon sardines; the die off of sea lions is caused by the oceanographic conditions – not the result of fishing. In fact, reproductive failures of sea lions have occurred repeatedly in the past at times of high sardine abundance.

If he has read Dr. Essington’s paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences he would also know that there is no relationship between fishing and the duration of periods of low abundance of sardines and other forage fish.

The harvest rule for sardines is highly precautionary, even when sardines are at high abundance the harvest rate is low. Indeed the harvest control rule for sardines matches very well the recommended harvest rule for forage fish that emerged from the LENFEST report – that is a low target harvest rate at high abundance with the fishery closed when the stock reaches low abundance.

Members of the Science and Statistics Committee of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council have explained all this to Dr. Shester before – he simply continues to ignore science and pursue his own agenda.

Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter here: @hilbornr

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Mar 2 2016

The Wild, Wild West Coast

A UC Santa Cruz Special Report: The Wild, Wild West Coast


A warm blob of water, a bloom of toxic algae, unexpected sightings of ocean life, and an El Niño have left UC Santa Cruz researchers wondering what the future holds for North America’s west coast and its marine ecosystem.

By Amy West

Mark Carr excitedly skimmed through email in his UC Santa Cruz office.

“The divers just found a really weird urchin off Cannery Row, and it’s called…,” he trailed off, trying to recall the name.

His colleague Pete Raimondi walked in and rattled off a few unusual urchin species that had shown up in Monterey Bay the past year.

“No, no,” Carr said, looking pointedly at him. “It’s even weirder than that.”

urchinDivers found the warm-water urchin Arbacia stellata last year as far north as Cannery Row. (Photo by Kenan Chan)

Turns out it was Arbacia stellata—an urchin found mainly in the Gulf of California in Baja, Mexico. A few were seen as far north as the Channel Islands during the 1997–98 El Niño.

That odd arrival in Monterey Bay was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Many species of warm-water predators and their prey moved farther north and closer to the coast during the past 18 months, including ocean sunfish and skipjack tuna seen off Alaska; sub-tropical fish such as marlin and blue-fin tuna and a pod of rare pygmy killer whales just off southern California; tropical sea snakes that washed up on southern California beaches; a green sea turtle typically found in Mexico that floated into San Francisco Bay and up the San Joaquin River; and porcupine fish and a fine-scaled triggerfish spotted in Monterey Bay, which turned tropical blue in August from a rare bloom of single-celled algae called coccolithophores.

Carr and Raimondi, both professors of ecology and evolutionary biology who have been studying ocean life along the West Coast for the past 25 years, say they have been seeing things they’ve never seen before. Carr, for example, was surprised to encounter large numbers of juvenile California sheephead and kelp bass in the kelp forests off Carmel and Monterey. Small numbers of sheephead adults had been spotted this far north after El Niños, he explains, but a whole school of baby sheephead meant many survived as larvae carried northward by ocean currents for hundreds of miles. Early life stages of other marine critters, including pink sea slugs, spiny lobster, and red pelagic crabs, also floated far north of their normal ranges. Many of these unusual visitors last appeared during the 1997–98 or 1982–83 El Niños.

2015 was a remarkable year, to say the least, for ocean life along the west coast of North America. Unprecedented warm water formed a corridor for marine organisms, big and small, to head north. It also led to perfect conditions for a massive bloom of toxic algae, creating a toxic buffet that traveled up the food chain and eventually shut down valuable fisheries and triggered national attention. Now, the third-largest El Niño on record is adding yet another variable to the mix. For researchers like Carr and Raimondi, armed with 25 years of data, it’s still impossible to make sense of these bizarre conditions. Will they be a footnote? Or are they a harbinger of a drastically different ocean?

A ‘blob’ of warm water forms

It all began in the fall of 2013, when an abnormal weather system—an unmoving ridge of high pressure—formed off the Pacific Northwest coast. It shut down ocean-stirring winds and slowed the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, a process that regulates the Earth’s climate.

This weather system, farther north than usual, spun out winds that pushed cold weather to the East Coast and left California bone dry. It also created a “blob” of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska.

In spring of 2014, the ocean rapidly warmed off Baja and Southern California due to persistently weak winds, says NOAA climate researcher Nate Mantua. By fall of 2014, after another shift in wind patterns, the warm patches had all merged.

The unusually warm water (5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal in some places) dampened conditions for microscopic algae to grow, but Monterey Bay was a region rife with life. Normally in the spring and summer on the West Coast, wind-driven upwelling brings to the surface cold, nutrient-rich water from deep in the ocean, spurring the growth of algae that form the base of the food chain. In 2014 and 2015, however, unusually weak winds meant upwelling happened mainly in Northern California and farther north. Monterey Bay had enough nutrient input to maintain phytoplankton blooms with help from its deep-water canyon, according to UCSC research biologist Baldo Marinovic.

“Monterey Bay is a refuge in hard times because we have deeper water close by,” Marinovic says. But upwelling occurred only within a narrow band close to shore. This coastal strip of productivity meant abundant and spectacularly close encounters with whales, sea lions, dolphins, and sharks while they foraged.

That activity was great for the tourist boats, but it turned out to be bad for the animals.

Marine life feeds on a toxic buffet

The downside to food being concentrated near the coast was that the animals munching on the phytoplankton, or munching on animals that eat the phytoplankton, also ingested mouthfuls of a neurotoxin called domoic acid. The strange oceanographic conditions in 2015 had spurred the worst year on record of a domoic acid outbreak, right after 2014 had already broken records. Silica rods of microscopic algae called Pseudo-nitzschia produce domoic acid when stressed by, say, the temperature changing. Blooms of these algae normally last just a few weeks in early spring and autumn. In 2015, however, rather than tapering off, the algae remained for months and at levels never seen before—from Southern California to Alaska.

Pseudo-nitzschia are the goldilocks of phytoplankton. “They don’t want it too hot, they don’t want it too cold,” says ocean scientist Raphael Kudela, the Lynn Professor of Ocean Health at UC Santa Cruz. With unusually warm water from the blob syncing with upwelled water that injected some nutrients, he says, “suddenly across the whole West Coast [the algae] got exactly what they wanted.”

Foretelling ocean blooms

UC Santa Cruz researchers are developing models to predict toxic algae blooms along the West Coast. In 2018, the forecasts will be part of updates provided by the National Weather Service and the National Ocean Service.

The algae are not the problem; the issue is when they produce the potentially fatal neurotoxin. Consuming this toxin can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning, which overexcites the nervous systems of vertebrates and assaults the memory center of the brain (the hippocampus), leading to seizures and disorientation. Toxins—compounded with nutritional deficiencies due to reduced availability of prey (also linked to the warm water)—led to record numbers of seabird and sea lion strandings and deaths. Additionally, the unprecedented fishery closures—including Dungeness and rock crab, anchovy, oyster, razor clams, and mussels—meant many fishing communities took major hits to the economic punching bag. This scientific, economic, and health problem caught the attention of government officials, and monitoring this harmful algal bloom became a priority.

For the first time, scientists found domoic acid not only in the guts, but also in the meat of commercial fish and crabs. Animals can typically flush the toxin through their systems in 24 hours, but the prolonged exposure allowed it to seep into their flesh. Levels in crabs were still too high in early December, when the California crab season normally opens. Although algae populations were dwindling, the toxicity endured because the algae fell to the seafloor where crabs scavenge, explains Kudela. The toxin doesn’t hurt the crabs, but they continuously accumulate it as they feed. Kudela’s team sampled seafloor sediments and invertebrates and found that regardless of which invertebrates were analyzed for domoic acid, the results came back 10 times higher than toxin levels in the sediment. Crab season finally opened in Oregon the first week of January, but in California, commercial fishing for Dungeness crab was still closed in mid-February.

There was a big domoic acid bloom in 2014, notes Kudela, and in 2015 the whole west coast was affected. “If we go into 2016 and it’s another year like this, then we are talking about restructuring the way the ocean is working,” he says.

Kudela worries about new toxic hotspots, such as Humboldt County, which aren’t traditionally problematic and, therefore, not regularly sampled. “Suddenly we are going to have toxic shellfish coming in where no one is expecting them.”

El Niño whammy

Adding to this jumble of anomalous winds, ocean warming, harmful algal blooms, and atmospheric weirdness, is the 2015-2016 El Niño—one of the three strongest on record. During El Niño, warm, tropical water that’s usually held up against the Indonesian coast sloshes over to the other side of the ocean off South America after trade winds back off or reverse. This irregular weather pattern doesn’t just affect countries bordering one ocean, but influences the entire planet. Thus far in 2015, El Niño has already been linked to outlandish weather around the globe: record-breaking warmth on the East Coast and at the North Pole, tornadoes and floods in the southern United States, and drought and fires in Indonesia.

Every El Niño is different, and predicting the effects of this one is challenging, though the previous warming of the ocean between Hawaii and the West Coast may add more moisture to storms. Typically an El Niño in California means more frequent and intense storms, higher rainfall, and higher sea levels (because warm water expands).

Raimondi and Carr’s lab has routinely monitored the rocky coastline from Alaska to Southern California and the kelp forests along Central California for the past 25 years. Their long-standing data on biodiversity and abundance means they are able to distinguish larger-scale transformation from the seasonal changes. Their temperature sensors close to shore in 2015 registered two to three degrees Celsius warmer than normal, says Raimondi, and he attributes to ocean warming the disappearance of a highly desired and rare algae, sea palm (Postelsia palmaeformis), from its southern range in California. “It has a particular life history that makes it hard to come back,” says Raimondi. “It doesn’t replenish quickly after some sort of disturbance.”

For giant kelp, El Niño’s storm waves and warmer water carrying fewer nutrients is a double whammy: they grow poorly, and the swell hammers them. If climate change forecasts are accurate with respect to storms increasing in frequency and the swell direction changing, says Carr, the growing season for giant kelp will be shortened each year. Kelp forests harbor a host of invertebrates and fish—some commercially important, like sea urchins, lobster, rockfish and lingcod—and generate food for other species. Both Carr and Raimondi emphasize that what happens after an El Niño year is most critical. Kelp forests and other ecosystems can recover from the battering because El Niño and its impacts typically vanish the following year.

“If that doesn’t happen with this event, then I think people will really be scratching their heads,” says NOAA’s Mantua.

Connection conundrum

Raimondi notes that in some places marine organisms have disappeared or expanded their ranges, though currently there’s no consensus on whether these events are related to ocean warming or El Niño. For instance, a disease that wiped out sea stars up and down the North American coast hit before the warm water blobs formed. That disease, called sea star wasting syndrome, took out an important urchin predator in Monterey Bay, the sunflower sea star. Purple urchins can decimate kelp forests, and large numbers have popped up recently during some of the team’s survey dives. Paradoxically, warm water is generally bad for echinoderms like urchins, says Raimondi, “So you’d think urchins would be creamed, but they weren’t.” Sea urchins are experiencing die-offs, however, in a few areas off the coast of southern California.

So what’s really affecting what? Understanding how diseases and ocean anomalies like ocean warming or acidification are linked to population bursts and disappearances within a very complex environment is anything but straightforward. Trying to unravel that scientific tangle is the raison d’être for Kristy Kroeker, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. “Most research on climate change happens in isolation, because it’s so challenging to tease apart what’s happening in nature and wrap your head around all the different interactions as things change simultaneously,” says Kroeker, who is focusing her research on kelp forests and estuaries.

Mantua echoed that sentiment when pondering recent El Niños that seemed different and wind patterns that were also changing. “El Niño is a really hard science problem by itself, and El Niño in a changing climate is even more so,” says NOAA’s Mantua. “It is tricky, because it’s not like A plus B equals C; its like A is part of B and it’s part of C and maybe C is causing A to change.”

Harbingers of our future ocean

The bottom line is that several unfamiliar scenes are developing along North America’s west coast at the same time that our oceans are changing on a global scale. The fallout could be from one thing, or it could be from a combination; but the more complex the relationship, the harder for science to keep pace.

“This stuff is happening now, but it takes science months to put these stories together,” says Mantua. “Science is always playing catch up.”

What is considered bizarre conditions now could become more commonplace. And it’s not just ocean life that suffers, but also humans who depend on ocean resources. Whether it hurts the economy, livelihoods, or drinking water, research into understanding the connections, so as to ultimately mitigate the problems, is vital, says Kudela.

Last year provided a good snapshot of how a complex marine community reacts to warming water—possibly a “dress rehearsal” for what’s to come, as suggested by Washington State climatologist Nick Bond. After all, excess heat from the atmosphere mixes into the ocean, which is why sea temperatures have been slowly increasing for well over a century. Thus, the looming mystery is what long-term warming of our oceans will do to marine ecosystems.

According to Carr and Raimondi, if a scenario of local ocean warming persists, many species will shift their ranges north, and Central California will start to look more like Southern California.

“The expectation has never been that change will be uniform everywhere,”says Raimondi, and that makes management decisions challenging. “It’s going to be more of a mosaic than a blanket.”

But then again, scientists have never seen a confluence of so many events occurring simultaneously, so what will happen along the West Coast is really anyone’s guess.

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Mar 2 2016

Why are so many sea lion pups starving? Scientists find the answer off the Central California coast


An emaciated and sick sea lion pup at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro in 2013. New research blames a lack of nutritious fish off California’s central coast for the rise in starving pups in Southern California. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Government scientists say there’s a simple explanation for the surge in starving sea lion pups along the Southern California coast: Their mothers can’t find enough nutritious food.

The high-fat, high-calorie fish species that female sea lions prefer to eat have been harder to come by in their usual hunting waters around the Channel Islands breeding colonies, according to researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As their preferred sardines and anchovies became less plentiful, they’ve had to settle for rockfish and market squid instead.

The decline in sardines and anchovies and corresponding increase in less nourishing fish explains 81% of the change in sea lion pup weights between 2004 and 2013, the NOAA scientists reported Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

California sea lions have had a precarious existence since the late 1800s, when humans began hunting them for their fur, meat and oil. Many of them also became casualties of fishing operations. By the 1970s, the number of sea lions had dwindled to around 50,000, experts estimate.

The animals’ fortunes began to change in 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. With federal protection, the population of Zalophus californianus grew about 5% per year, reaching 340,000 in 2014.


Hunger drove sea lion pups ashore in Southern California in record numbers in 2013. These rescued pups were cared for by the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

That progress hasn’t always been steady. In El Niño years, anchovies and sardines became scarce and sea lions switched to rockfish, squid and hake. Previous studies have found that when sea lion mothers eat more rockfish and squid (as determined by analyzing their scat), the pups they nurse have lower body weights.

A team from NOAA’s Fisheries Service wondered whether the effects were limited to El Niño years.

To find out, they needed to know where pregnant and nursing sea lions liked to hunt. They estimated a likely foraging range based on the movements of six female sea lions from San Miguel Island that were tagged by researchers in the 1990s. The data from those tags showed they liked to hunt off the California coast between Big Sur and Malibu.

Next they had to figure out what kinds of fish were available in those waters. For more than 30 years, researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center have been taking a census of young rockfish and other fish species in central California. Data for the area they needed was available from 2004 to 2014.

Finally, they looked up the average weight of 14-week-old sea lion pups from San Miguel Island for each year between 2004 and 2011. During that period, the average weight ranged from 14.8 kilograms to 20.9 kg for female pups and from 17.5 kg to 23.6 kg for male pups.

The pattern they found was clear: When sardines and anchovies were abundant and rockfish and squid were scarce, sea lion pups weighed more. Conversely, when rockfish and squid were plentiful and sardines and anchovies were not, sea lion pups weighed less.

The NOAA scientists weren’t able to study the “composition or quantity” of milk produced by sea lion mothers, so they couldn’t make a direct link between the types of fish in the sea and the nutritional value of their milk. Still, the results amount to “compelling evidence” that the pups are starving because their moms can’t produce enough milk for them, the scientists wrote.

At least 375 sea lions have stranded themselves on Southern California beaches so far in 2016, according to NOAA. The study authors said this trend could continue for quite some time.

“We expect repeated years with malnourished and starving sea lion pups,” they wrote.

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Mar 2 2016

Sea Lion Die-Off Tied to ‘Junk Food’ Fish

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA barking California sea lion pup shows signs of undernourishment.

Record numbers of California sea lion pups have been starving and stranding on beaches by the thousands in recent years, and now new research finds that a decline in their mothers’ food quality is behind the disturbing trend.

High calorie sardines and anchovies are now harder for sea lion moms to find, causing them to eat more rockfish and market squid that can be great for people on diets, but aren’t as hearty a meal for hungry sea lions. The findings are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“For human consumption, highly oily fish may actually be less desirable to consumers,” lead author Sam McClatchie told Discovery News. “In contrast, for predators with high energy demands, such as nursing female sea lions, eating fish with higher energy density due to higher content of calories and fats provides a more effective way to meet their nutritional demands.”

Human demand for anchovies, in particular, has been on the rise due to the savory fish’s popularity in Caesar salad dressing and in “junk foods” like pizza. The real junk food for breeding female sea lions, minus the high calories, turns out to be the other types of fish that are now more prevalent in their feeding areas off central California.

McClatchie, an oceanographer at NOAA Fisheries Service’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and his team studied both the sea lion pup strandings and population trends for fish that adult sea lions eat. Data for the latter came from surveys that are conducted each summer off the coast of California.

A perfect storm now appears to be in place that is hurting the sea lions. Due to conservation efforts, numbers of these marine mammals increased from about 50,000 40 years ago to around 340,000 now. No one knows what the historic populations were like, given that Native Americans also frequently hunted sea lions and there are no detailed sea lion population estimates prior to the 1970s.

At a time when the sea lion population appears to be approaching what the researchers call its current “carrying capacity” for the region, sardine and anchovy numbers plummeted while market squid and rockfish abundance increased.

Several researchers, such as marine biologist Malin Pinsky of Rutgers, have attributed this and prior dramatic fish population plunges to overfishing by humans. He and his team note that such collapses started to occur more frequently in sardines and anchovies after the advent of efficient fishing vessels and techniques following World War II. Anchovies and sardines are important to the pet food and fish oil industries, in addition to their other mentioned common uses.

“Overfishing is a problem throughout the world and across all species, including slow-growing fish like sharks, many of which are in serious trouble,” said Pinsky. “But it turns out that fishery collapses are three times more likely in the opposite kinds of species — those that grow quickly.”

McClatchie and his team, however, believe that the problem is “environmental,” and not because of overfishing.

McClatchie and his team, however, believe that the problem is “environmental,” and not because of overfishing. This distinction is important, as federal regulators are planning to do an official stock assessment of anchovies in the fall and will consider updating the 25,000-ton rule that now limits catches.

“Sardine and anchovy populations both show large inter-annual variability that is environmentally driven and prior to any fishing,” McClatchie said.

Joshua Lindsay of the National Marine Fisheries Service told Discovery News that populations of anchovies, sardines and other small fish “are linked to prevailing environmental conditions. NMFS has been working to better understand these environmental processes driving fish populations as well as the diet linkages between forage fish species and higher order predators to enhance the ecosystem science used in our fisheries management.”

Marc Mangel, a professor at both the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Bergen, says the study “will help refocus the discussion about the causes of sea lion declines. More importantly, in my opinion, it is a terrific example of how we can use marine mammals and birds as sentinels or samplers of the environment.”

In the meantime, the short-term outlook for sea lions is worrisome, particularly for rescue centers that have been stretched to their limits. McClatchie and his colleagues say that they “expect repeated years with malnourished and starving sea lion pups,” but can’t predict when that will end.

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