Posts Tagged NOAA

May 19 2015

Researchers discover world’s first warm-blooded fish

The opah, or moonfish, a large colourful fish living across the world’s oceans, has been found to have a warm heart and maintain a high body temperature, according to a report in the journal Science. It’s a zoological curiosity and a remarkable evolutionary development for fish.

In the cold darkness of the deep sea there is a clear advantage to being warm-blooded and able to move faster than all the other creatures in order to hunt them down or to avoid being eaten. Mammals such as seals or whales exploit this to great effect. They take a big breath and dive down, insulated from the cold by a thick layer of blubber, to snatch live food such as squids, fish and shrimps from the depths.

Until now it was thought that fish couldn’t keep warm in this way because instead of breathing air they extract oxygen directly from the water through their gills. The advantage of this is obvious: fish can stay underwater indefinitely. However, although their blood may be warmed by muscle activity on every circuit of the body as it comes gushing out of the heart it goes directly into the gills and is instantly cooled to ocean temperature.

The gills are intricate oxygen exchangers. A tiny membrane one thousandth of a millimetre thick is all that separates the blood and the sea, which ensures instant transfer of oxygen into the red blood cells. Heat flows faster than oxygen, so no matter how much heat the fish might be generating, its blood is automatically chilled with every heart beat.

The opah (Lampris guttatus) has evolved a unique solution to this problem. A team from the NOAA SouthWest Fisheries Science Center in California, led by Nicholas Wegner, discovered the fish has a special insulated network of blood vessels between the heart and the gills. These vessels act as a heat exchanger in which warm blood from the heart reheats oxygenated blood leaving the gills before it goes to the body. In this way heat is retained and not dissipated into the ocean.

This enables the opah to maintain a body temperature 5°C higher than the surrounding water and to dive 500 metres below the surface without cooling down. An insulating layer of fat in the skin keeps the heart, brain, muscles and vital organs warm.
Hiding in plain sight

This discovery is surprising since the opah is large and conspicuous; indeed, it’s already a favourite in fish markets and restaurants. Wegner and his colleagues deserve great credit for recognising and describing in detail the specialised gill heat exchangers that have been hidden right under the noses of fishermen and chefs for centuries.

The opah is shaped like a flattened disc with bright red fins. It grows up to two metres long and can weigh up to 80 kilograms. It’s a solitary fish, never caught in large numbers and is found in all oceans except polar seas. It swims by continuously flapping its pectoral fins in a similar way to the wings of a bird — and it is the energy from these muscles that provides most of the heat.

It has long been known that certain high-performance fishes such as sharks, tuna and swordfish can warm some muscles, the brain or their eyes using a dense web of warm and cold heat exchanging blood vessels around the area in question. However their blood is still cooled to ocean temperature each time it passes the gills, as in all other fishes. With its heart and all its vital organs working at an elevated temperature, the opah is the first fish that can be regarded as truly warm-blooded.

It is intriguing to speculate whether this is a new evolutionary trend for fish that in future might emulate the warm-bloodedness of birds and mammals. For most fishes living in tropical seas this adaptation is not necessary; the warm water temperature is ideal for life. But for the opah, which wants to stay down deeper for longer in order to hunt squid in cold waters, the warm-blood adaptation helps it outcompete partially heated rivals like the Albacore tuna.

The mechanism can only work for large-bodied fish with space for insulation, meaning heat loss to the surroundings can be controlled. Even with specialised heat-retaining gills like the opah has, a small fish the size of a mouse would quickly cool down, the heat absorbing capacity of water is too great for any small animal to retain body warmth.

Even the opah is not able to compete with warm-blooded diving foragers such as penguins and seals, or whales in the polar seas. The fish is a zoological oddity belonging to a group that appeared in the last 100m years at the same time as mammals and birds evolved. We cannot know if the fossil species were warm-blooded and if we search further we may find other species with similar adaptations.

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May 14 2015

Demystifying Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management


Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) became a major initiative of resource managers around the world beginning in the 1990s.  Unlike traditional management approaches that focused solely on the biology of a particular stock, EBFM provides a more holistic approach to fisheries management – one that takes into account the complex suite of biological, physical, economic, and social factors associated with managing living marine resources.

EBFM has continued to evolve over the past 20 years and is now a cornerstone of NOAA Fisheries’ efforts to sustainably manage the nation’s marine resources.  But despite substantial progress in the science behind and application of EBFM, a perception remains that the science and governance structures to implement EBFM are lacking, when in fact they have already been resolved in the United States and other developed countries.  An April 2015 article in Fisheries took on the important challenge of identifying some of the most common myths that can impede the implementation of EBFM.  Here’s a look at some of them.


Myth 1: Marine ecosystem-based management lacks universal terminology, making it difficult to implement.

The scientific literature provides clear and consistent definitions of marine ecosystem-based management and associated terminology.  There are three primary levels of ecosystem-based management in relation to marine fisheries that differ by focus area. Full definitions can be found in the paper. From most comprehensive to least comprehensive, the three levels differ by their key focus:
  1. Ecosystem approaches to fisheries management (EAFM) focus on a single fisheries stock and include other factors that can influence a stock.
  2. Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM)  focuses on the fisheries sector (multiple fisheries).
  3. Ecosystem-based management (EBM) focuses on multiple sectors, such as fisheries, ecotourism, and oil and gas exploration.



Myth 2: There’s no clear mandate for EBFM.

For the past 20 years, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, combined with more than 90 separate federal legislative mandates, either implicitly or explicitly have given NOAA authority to implement an ecosystem-based approach to management.  NOAA Fisheries specifically has been fully engaged during this period to implement EBFM, in order to more efficiently and effectively fulfill its key mandate – stewardship of the nation’s living marine resources and their habitats, interactions, and ecosystems. Rather than waiting for the perfect mandate to move forward with EBFM, managers, scientists, and policymakers can and should move forward within current authorities.



Myth 3: EBFM requires extensive data and complicated models.

A common misconception is that EBFM requires comprehensive data and complex models, and can only be applied in exceptional, data-rich circumstances.  The reality is that EBFM begins with what is known about the ecosystem.  It provides a framework to use all available knowledge, whether it’s a detailed time series of species abundance or more descriptive local knowledge of the ecosystem.  When data are limited, approaches such as risk, portfolio, or loop analysis can be applied to work with available information.  These techniques provide managers with a tool to assess whether a fish population or the ecosystem is likely to reach a tipping point.The key point here is that EBFM allows managers to work with the information available to best manage the resources in an ecosystem, aware of all the parts of the system simultaneously.



Myth 4: EBFM results will always be conservative and restrictive.

There is an existing perception that applying EBFM will always result in a more precautionary approach to management and reduced catch limits.  The rationale is that accounting for more uncertainty as well as focusing on conserving protected or non-target species will lead to more restrictive management measures that further reduce catches below maximum sustainable yield (MSY) levels.  A better question might be, why would stakeholders ignore the best available science and jeopardize the resiliency of the stocks and ecosystem? Fisheries scientists over the past half century have criticized the concept of maximum sustainable yield for single species because of the impossibility of achieving MSY for all species simultaneously.Furthermore, some studies show that when management applies EBFM and focuses on the combined landings and value of all targeted species in an ecosystem, the landings are comparable to the amounts under single-species management.  Plus, there may be long-term economic benefits for multiple fisheries when the system is managed as a whole.



Myth 5: EBFM is a naïve attempt to describe a complex system.

Proponents see EBFM as a solution, whereas critics see it as an approach that falls short of addressing the many socioeconomic, political, and other challenges inherent in marine resource management.  Scientific agencies worldwide have traditionally given fishery management advice on a stock-by-stock basis rather than consider multiple fisheries and multiple user groups. But ignoring the trade-offs, or the existence of multiple objectives, does not make them go away.  Different stakeholders often have competing interests, and it is important to acknowledge these differences and identify management options that optimize the full range of interests.  Strategies can often meet multiple objectives, such that no one stock, fishery, sector, economy, or community is unknowingly depleted at the expense of another. Ultimately, EBFM is about trade-off analysis – examining which options meet the most objectives as a collective system.



Myth 6: There aren’t enough resources to do EBFM.

A final myth is that it will take substantially more resources – more funding, staff, data, and sophisticated models – to implement EBFM.  But EBFM implementation actually has the potential to increase efficiencies.  Many national and international working groups currently exist to support single-species management efforts.  A transition to EBFM allows multiple species to be addressed through a more integrated assessment process, thus requiring fewer working groups.  This has the potential to reduce staff workloads and consolidate modeling efforts.  In addition, applying EBFM has been shown to improve the stability of marine ecosystems, which translates into improved regulatory and economic stability and better business planning.


Dispelling the myths and taking action

These myths have discouraged some managers from even trying EBFM and have prevented them from getting the best available information needed for resource management.  Instead of viewing EBFM as a complex management process that requires an overabundance of information, it should be viewed as a framework to help managers work with the information they have and address competing objectives.   To learn more about EBFM and how NOAA is implementing it, click here.

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Apr 24 2015

Researchers, Managers, and Industry Saw This Coming: Boom-Bust Cycle Is Not a New Scenario for Pacific Sardines


A Message from Eileen Sobeck, Head of NOAA Fisheries

Pacific sardines have a long and storied history in the United States. These pint-size powerhouses of the ocean have been — on and off — one of our most abundant fisheries. They support the larger ecosystem as a food source for other marine creatures, and they support a valuable commercial fishery. When conditions are good, this small, highly productive species multiplies quickly. It can also decline sharply at other times, even in the absence of fishing. So it is known for wide swings in its population.

Recently, NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council received scientific information as a part of the ongoing study and annual assessment of this species. This information showed the sardine population had continued to decline. It was not a surprise. Scientists, the Council, NOAA, and the industry were all aware of the downward trend over the past several years and have been following it carefully. Last week, the Council urged us to close the directed fishery on sardines for the 2015 fishing season.  NOAA Fisheries is also closing the fishery now for the remainder of the current fishing season to ensure the quota is not exceeded.

While these closures affect the fishing community, they also provide an example of our effective, dynamic fishery management process in action. Sardine fisheries management is designed around the natural variability of the species and its role in the ecosystem as forage for other species. It is driven by science and data, and catch levels are set far below levels needed to prevent overfishing.  In addition, a precautionary measure is built into sardine management to stop directed fishing when the population falls below 150,000 metric tons. The 2015 stock assessment resulted in a population estimate of 97,000 metric tons, below the fishing cutoff, thereby triggering the Council action.

The sardine population is presently not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. However, the continued lack of recruitment of young fish into the stock in the past few years would have decreased the population, even without fishing pressure. So, these closures were a “controlled landing”. We saw where this stock was heading several years ago and everyone was monitoring the situation closely.

This decline is a part of the natural cycle in the marine environment. And if there is a new piece to this puzzle — such as climate change — we will continue to work closely with our partners in the scientific and management communities, the industry, and fishermen to address it.

To learn more about this amazing fish, go to these websites:


NOAA Southwest Fishery Science Center

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region

Pacific Fishery Management Council

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Apr 21 2015

Environmental changes stress West Coast sea lions

Males and female California sea lions respond differently to lack of food


In Southern California hundreds of starving sea lion pups are washing up on beaches, filling marine mammal care centers that scarcely can hold them all.Meanwhile thousands of adult male The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site California sea lions are surging into the Pacific Northwest, crowding onto docks and jetties in coastal communities.

How can animals from the same population be struggling in one region while thriving in another? The answer lies in the division of family responsibilities between male and female sea lions, and the different ways each responds to an ever-changing ocean.

“We’re seeing the population adjust to the environment as the environment changes,” said Sharon Melin, a sea lion biologist with the The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

The environmental changes affecting the sea lions can be traced to unusually weak winds off the West Coast over the last year. Without cooling winds, scientists say, the Pacific Ocean warmed as much as two to five degrees (C) above average. What started as a patchwork of warm water from Southern California to Alaska in 2014 has since grown into a vast expanse, affecting everything from plankton at the bottom of the food chain to sea lions near the top.

“The warming is about as strong as anything in the historical record,” said Nathan Mantua, who leads the Landscape Ecology Team at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Female sea lions struggle to find food for pups

The Channel Islands rookeries where nearly all California sea lions raise their young off Southern California sit in the middle of the warm expanse. Female sea lions have strong ties to the rookeries. They take foraging trips of a few days at a time before returning to the rookeries to nurse their pups.

But the unusually warm water has apparently shifted the distribution of their prey, making it harder for females to find enough food to support the nutritional needs of their pups. The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Their hungry pups, it now appears, are struggling to gain weight and have begun striking out from the rookeries on their own. Many do not make it and instead wash up on shore dead or emaciated.

Since the early 1970s the California sea lion population underwent unprecedented growth. The species is protected by the 1972 The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Marine Mammal Protection Act and is estimated to number about 300,000 along the U.S. West Coast. But the growth has slowed in recent years as ocean conditions have turned especially unfavorable for juvenile survival. That could lead to population declines in coming years, biologists say.

“We are working on data to look at whether the population might be approaching its resource limits,” Melin told reporters in The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site a recent conference call.

Sea lions serve as an indicator of ocean conditions because they are visible and are sensitive to small environmental and ecological changes, Melin said. The warm temperatures may well be affecting other species in less obvious ways.

“There are probably other things going on in the ecosystem we may not be seeing,” she said.

Male sea lions live like bachelors

Unlike female sea lions, males have no lasting obligations to females or young. After mating at the rookeries in midsummer, they leave the rookeries and roam as far as Oregon, Washington and Alaska in search of food.

“They’re bachelors,” said Mark Lowry of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. “They just go wherever they can to find something to eat.”

Male sea lions search out prey with high energy content, especially oily fish such as herring and sardines, said Robert DeLong, who leads a program to study the California Current Ecosystem at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Increasing numbers have found their way to the mouth of the Columbia River to feed on increasingly strong runs of The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site eulachon, also called smelt, and have taken up residence on docks and jetties near Astoria, Oregon.

“More sea lions learned last year and even more will learn this year that this is a good place to find food,” DeLong said of the Columbia River. “They’ve learned these fish are there now and they won’t forget that.”

DeLong and Steve Jeffries, a research biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, attached satellite-linked tracking tags to 15 sea lions feeding on salmon near Bremerton, Washington, in November and December. Four of those sea lions are now at the mouth of the Columbia, Jeffries said.

Counts around Astoria rose from a few hundred in January to nearly 2,000 in February, exceeding numbers in previous years at the same time. The count includes some animals from the eastern stock of The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Steller sea lions, removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2013. The California sea lions also feed on spring Chinook salmon and steelhead. Some of the Chinook and steelhead stocks are listed under the Endangered Species Act and The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site NOAA Fisheries is working with state officials to address sea lion predation.

By the beginning of May, the male sea lions depart for the summer breeding season at the rookeries in Southern California.

“It’s like flipping a switch,” DeLong said. “Suddenly it’s time to go.”

Poor feeding conditions may continue

The warm expanse of ocean extends to depths of 60 to 100 meters, Mantua said, and will likely take months to dissipate even if normal winds resume. Biologists expect poor feeding conditions for California sea lions will likely continue near their rookeries while warm ocean conditions persist. A more typical spring and summer with strong and persistent winds from the north would cool the water and likely improve foraging conditions along the West Coast.

The The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site tropical El Nino just declared by NOAA is one wild card that may affect West Coast ocean conditions over the next year. If the El Nino continues or intensifies through 2015, it would favor winds and ocean currents that support another year of warm conditions along the West Coast.

FAQ on sea lion strandings in Southern California:
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site
For more information on field research in the sea lion rookeries, see:
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site
For information on deterring problem seals and sea lions:
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site


FatandSkinnyPups nursing (1)An underweight sea lion pup nurses on the rock near the top of the photo while pups closer to normal weight nurse on the ground below. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center

Click here to view the slideshow.

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Apr 21 2015

Humpback Whales: An Endangered Species Act Success Story?

humpbackgallery04A humpback breaches, catapulting nearly its entire body out of the water. Credit: Amy Kennedy/NOAA

Are humpback whales still endangered, or have their populations recovered enough since whaling ended that they can now be taken off the Endangered Species List?

NOAA Fisheries scientists have spent several years researching this question, and their answer is not a simple yes or no. Instead, the Agency identified 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales, 10 of which we identified as not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The other four still appear vulnerable to extinction currently or within the foreseeable future and require the continued protection of the ESA.

Humpback Whales Make a Comeback

NOAA Fisheries believes humpback whales have rebounded in many areas, with high abundance and steady rates of population growth. This determination is based on a recent review of the best available scientific and commercial information by an expert group of scientists.

We also identified 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales. A distinct population segment is a term coined in the 1978 amendments to the Endangered Species Act that allows species to be divided into distinct subgroups or populations based on a number of characteristics.

Of the distinct population segments identified, 10 appear to no longer be in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. For instance, the West Indies population is growing at a modest 2 percent a year and the East Australia population is growing at an average rate of almost 11 percent a year.

Changing Status, But Not Protection

We determined the abundance and growth rates are high enough and threats low enough for 10 distinct population segments that they are no longer threatened or endangered. This prompted us to propose changing the status of these humpback whale populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the proposed rule, we recommend not including these populations on the ESA list.

This doesn’t mean humpback whales are left unprotected. The other four distinct population segments that still appear vulnerable to extinction will remain under ESA protections as a result of our proposal to extend the protections that automatically apply to the endangered populations to the threatened populations also. In addition, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) provides substantial protections to all marine mammals in U.S. waters, including humpback whales. This protection exists regardless of whether each distinct population segment is listed under the ESA. And for those populations outside of U.S. waters, the International Whaling Commission provides protection from whaling.
Humpback whales still have blankets of protection.

Adding Management Flexibility

The changes we propose are significant because they are recognition that the species is doing well and most populations are growing as a result of the Endangered Species Act protections. And moving forward, having identified these distinct population segments, we now have the flexibility to focus our efforts where they are needed the most, on those specific populations that are in danger of extinction or likely to become so.


humpback_nefscHumpback Whale. (Megaptera novaeangliae) Credit: NOAA NEFSC.

Read the original post here. The proposed rule is open for public comment through July 20, 2015.

Apr 18 2015

UW and NOAA Researchers Say ‘Warm blob’ in Pacific Ocean is Linked to Weird Weather Across The U.S.

Posted with permission from SEAFOODNEWS — Please do not repost without permission.

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [WUWT] By Anthony Watts – April 10, 2015


The one common element in recent weather has been oddness. The West Coast has been warm and parched; the East Coast has been cold and snowed under. Fish are swimming into new waters, and hungry seals are washing up on California beaches.

A long-lived patch of warm water off the West Coast, about 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, is part of what’s wreaking much of this mayhem, according to two University of Washington papers to appear in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“In the fall of 2013 and early 2014 we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn’t cool off as much as it usually did, so by spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen it for that time of year,” said Nick Bond, a climate scientist at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, a joint research center of the UW and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bond coined the term “the blob” last June in his monthly newsletter as Washington’s state climatologist. He said the huge patch of water – 1,000 miles in each direction and 300 feet deep – had contributed to Washington’s mild 2014 winter and might signal a warmer summer.

Ten months later, the blob is still off our shores, now squished up against the coast and extending about 1,000 miles offshore from Mexico up through Alaska, with water about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal. Bond says all the models point to it continuing through the end of this year.

The new study explores the blob’s origins. It finds that it relates to a persistent high-pressure ridge that caused a calmer ocean during the past two winters, so less heat was lost to cold air above. The warmer temperatures we see now aren’t due to more heating, but less winter cooling.

Co-authors on the paper are Meghan Cronin at NOAA in Seattle and a UW affiliate professor of oceanography, Nate Mantua at NOAA in Santa Cruz and Howard Freeland at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The authors look at how the blob is affecting West Coast marine life. They find fish sightings in unusual places, supporting recent reports that West Coast marine ecosystems are suffering and the food web is being disrupted by warm, less nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean water.

The blob’s influence also extends inland. As air passes over warmer water and reaches the coast it brings more heat and less snow, which the paper shows helped cause current drought conditions in California, Oregon and Washington.

The blob is just one element of a broader pattern in the Pacific Ocean whose influence reaches much further – possibly to include two bone-chilling winters in the Eastern U.S.

A study in the same journal by Dennis Hartmann, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences, looks at the Pacific Ocean’s relationship to the cold 2013-14 winter in the central and eastern United States.

Despite all the talk about the “polar vortex,” Hartmann argues we need to look south to understand why so much cold air went shooting down into Chicago and Boston.

His study shows a decadal-scale pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean linked with changes in the North Pacific, called the North Pacific mode, that sent atmospheric waves snaking along the globe to bring warm and dry air to the West Coast and very cold, wet air to the central and eastern states.

“Lately this mode seems to have emerged as second to the El Niño Southern Oscillation in terms of driving the long-term variability, especially over North America,” Hartmann said.

In a blog post last month, Hartmann focused on the more recent winter of 2014-15 and argues that, once again, the root cause was surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific.

That pattern, which also causes the blob, seems to have become stronger since about 1980 and lately has elbowed out the Pacific Decadal Oscillation to become second only to El Niño in its influence on global weather patterns.

“It’s an interesting question if that’s just natural variability happening or if there’s something changing about how the Pacific Ocean decadal variability behaves,” Hartmann said. “I don’t think we know the answer. Maybe it will go away quickly and we won’t talk about it anymore, but if it persists for a third year, then we’ll know something really unusual is going on.”

Bond says that although the blob does not seem to be caused by climate change, it has many of the same effects for West Coast weather.

“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Bond said. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.”

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Apr 15 2015

Status of Stocks 2014 Report to Congress: Overfishing and Overfished Stocks Hit All-Time Lows


Today, NOAA Fisheries is pleased to announce the release of the 2014 Status of U.S. Fisheries report to Congress and the regional fisheries management councils. The number of stocks on the overfishing and overfished lists dropped to an all-time low, and we continued to rebuild stocks.

In 2014, six stocks cam off the overfishing lists and 2 stocks are no longer listed as overfished. Additionally, stock assessments show three stocks have rebuildt–bringing the total number of stocks rebuilt since 2000 to 37.  This progress demonstrates that our science-based approach to determining stock status and managing for sustainability is working. We continue to look for ways to strengthen the fishery management process and address the role of complex ecosystems and climate implacts on U.S. fisheries. We look forward to working with you to build on our efforts and identify opportunities to further strengthen the long-term biological and economic sustainability of our nation’s fisheries.


stocksVisit the NOAA Fisheries website for more details and the report. Additional supporting data is available online through the Office of Sustainable Fisheries.

Warm Regards,

Laurel Bryant
Chief, External Affairs
NOAA Fisheries Communications

Apr 14 2015

Scat may contain clues to marine mammals’ Southern California deaths

la-seal-scat-la0027980795-20150407Biologist Mark Lowry collects sea lion and elephant seal scat.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

By Louis Sahagun

Mark Lowry has collected sea lion and elephant seal scat from San Nicolas and San Clemente islands for more than three decades to track the long-term health of marine mammal life off the California coast.

But the federal biologist’s work has new meaning — and urgency — this year. Analyses of the specimens could solve the mystery of why so many young sea lions have been found dead and dying on Southern California beaches.

Keeping a wary eye on a herd of elephant seals lolling on rocks perched over the pounding surf here on a recent weekday, Lowry put on rubber gloves and used a dinner spoon to scoop up piles of seal scat and plop them into plastic specimen bags.

Lowry, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist, hoped the pungent material contained answers to why at least 2,250 dehydrated and underweight sea lions started showing up on local beaches in January — around the time he detected evidence of an unprecedented shift in the species’ eating habits.

Specifically, Lowry found what he described as “mystery stuff — gooey bits of substance you’d expect from a diet of jellyfish or tube worms.”

Sea lions are opportunistic predators that typically feed on mackerel, sardines, rockfish and market squid. But amid El Niño-like conditions and a dearth of fish and squid to prey on, they may be trying to sustain themselves on novel food sources, he said.

“These findings are preliminary,” Lowry said. “But it could mean sea lions are starving and eating what little they can find to fill their stomachs up.”

There were 350 ailing sea lion pups stranded on local beaches in January, 850 in February and 1,050 in March, according to the latest numbers released by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The overall health of the California sea lion population, however, remains robust.

“The sea lion population is increasing at a rate of about 5.1% per year,” said Lowry, who also conducts annual aerial surveys of California’s pinniped populations. “In 1964, the sea lion population was about 30,000. Today, it is a tad over 300,000.”

Most of those sea lions breed on the wind-raked beaches of 3-mile-by-9-mile San Nicolas Island, the outermost of the eight Channel Islands and pinniped capital of the United States.

San Nicolas is populated by about 200 military and civilian residents. But for several months beginning in December and continuing into spring, it is breeding grounds for tens of thousands of California sea lions, elephant seals and harbor seals.

Lugging his collecting gear and buckets down a sandstone bluff toward raucous herds of sea lions and elephant seals weighing as much as 3,000 pounds, Lowry, 64, said with a laugh, “This is field biology at its finest.”

Moments later, he was in his element, on his knees and harvesting seal scat on this desert isle used by the Navy to test the latest missile defense systems.

“If flies are interested in it, I’m interested,” he said. “No joke.”

He aimed to collect 15 pounds of the stuff for analysis later in his La Jolla laboratory. That process involves soaking the samples in buckets of fragrant soapy water, then pouring them through wire-mesh seines to separate out bony particles that can determine the species, size and age of the fish and squid eaten.

“The value of Mark’s data is enormous,” said Doug Demaster, science and research director of NOAA’s Alaska region fisheries. “Shifts in the diets of sea lions are among the earliest signals we get of impending El Niño events, which mean wholesale shifts of wind and storm patterns, and changes in the marine ecology.

“Beyond that, we all want to know why the number of dying sea lion pups on California’s beaches has jumped from a few dozen a year to thousands in the past three months alone.”

Seals have altered their feeding habits several times over the last three decades, Lowry said. In the 1980s, for example, they were eating mostly anchovies and sardines. In the 1990s, they started going after squid. During El Niño events, they chase rockfish.

“The mystery stuff I’m finding now is altogether new,” he said. “I intend to figure out exactly what it is.”

Lugging a 5-gallon bucket full of scat samples back to his pickup after a productive day of prospecting, Lowry smiled and said, “I have no plans to retire, and my bosses are very happy about that.”

la-seal-scat-la0027980767-20150407Seal scat
Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Biologist Mark Lowry uses a large tablespoon to scoop up sea lion and elephant seal scat to track the long-term health of marine mammal life on San Nicolas Island.

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Mar 24 2015

Warm waters off Pacific coast upsetting biological balance, researchers say

sealionpupPC:Morsel, a male California sea lion, had to be force fed at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Tuesday, February 3, 2015. The Marine Mammal Center is getting in a lot more sick and abandoned young California sea lions. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

“Unprecedented changes” that have warmed the ocean off the west coast of North America may portend a dramatic decline in the biological productivity of coastal waters, explaining recent strandings of emaciated sea lion pups and a mass die-off that began last fall of small seabirds called Cassin’s auklets.

That’s the word from fishery experts and ecologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who say populations of tiny organisms at the base of the marine food web already have diminished and could take a toll on everything from salmon to seals because of especially intense variability in regional weather patterns.

Scientists remain in “wait and see” mode, but, “Our guess is the primary productivity of zooplankton and phytoplankton will probably be reduced this year,” and perhaps even longer, said Toby Garfield, director of the Environmental Research Division at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

A shift in atmospheric winds and the flow of unusually warm waters south from the Gulf of Alaska have raised ocean surface temperatures between 2 to 6 degrees along a band of Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Mexico, according to Nate Mantua, leader of the landscape ecology team at the science center’s Santa Cruz facility.

“Right now, the ocean is very warm, and we have lots of indicators pointing to low productivity and low availability of some of the more normal prey items for things like seabirds and marine mammals, including seals and sea lions,” he said.

In addition, an extended period of winds from the south and weak winds from the north has depressed the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that would normally fertilize the surface waters and stimulate a more productive food web, he said.

But there are mixed signals in the wind and water, including some indication that north winds and ocean upwelling may be beginning from Cape Mendocino, in Humboldt County, north to southern Oregon, Mantua said.

Whether it continues, grows in strength and spreads southward is still in question, but it could help mitigate “food stress” to some degree, he said.

On the other hand, NOAA has recently declared development of a weak El Niño at the equator.

If it strengthens and spreads, “we’re potentially getting warm conditions from two directions,” Garfield said.
That could be good for fish species like sardines and anchovies, which tend to thrive in warm conditions, scientists said.

For cold water fish, like salmon, the reverse is true.

“The patterns that we’re seeing,” Garfield said, “are part of the natural variability that we expect to see. But in this particular instance, it’s been much stronger than in past instances.”

Mantua said strong upwellings and cold water conditions in 2012 and ’13 suggest the current trend reflects regional atmospheric conditions rather than long-term climate change, which is expected to become more dominant in years to come.

But the rapid warming that began last year and continues now could easily persist through next year, he said.

Scientists warned of implications for the marine food web as early as last fall.

When emaciated juvenile Cassin’s auklets began showing up dead along the California Coast in early November, wildlife biologists said it was likely because krill, their usual forage prey, had disappeared from the warm waters near their breeding colonies.

In December, focus shifted to very young, undernourished sea lion pups who began washing ashore, especially in the southern part of the state, well before they should have left their mothers’ sides. The pups are apparently unable to get the nourishment they need.

Insufficient food supplies are likely exacerbated by exponential growth in sea lion populations over the past few decades, Mantua said.

More than 1,800 stranded sea lions have since been recorded, though that number reflects only those that have been admitted to marine mammal rehabilitation facilities such as the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. That facility had 220 sea lion pups in its care Thursday, a spokeswoman said, and has cared for 568 so far this year.

Many pups have died before they could be admitted to care or have been euthanized upon arrival, said Justin Viezbicke, coordinator of the California Stranding Network.

Those that have been released back to the wild still face the same challenging ocean conditions that sent them ashore in the first place, as well, he said.

“We don’t believe we’ve peaked yet,” Viezbicke said.

Read the original post: | By Mary Callahan | March 19, 2015

Mar 19 2015

Things to Know about California’s sea lion crisis

bildeVolunteer Brennan Slavik carries a just-rescued sea lion pup into a holding pen after feeding the pup, Monday, March 2, 2015, in Laguna Beach, Calif. Since January, more than 1,100 starving and sickly sea lion pups have washed up along Californiaís coast. Rescue centers have taken in about 800 but are stretched thin by the demand. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — More than 1,800 starving sea lion pups have washed up on California beaches since Jan. 1 and 750 are being treated in rescue centers across the state, according to updated numbers released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists with the federal agency believe the crisis hasn’t reached its peak and sea lions could continue to arrive on beaches sick and starving for at least two more months.

Here are a few things to know about the sea lion crisis unfolding in California:

Waters off North America’s Pacific Coast are about 2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average. That could be pushing the fish that sea lions eat — sardines, market squid and anchovies, for example — further north. The majority of sea lions give birth in rookeries on the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast and mothers are leaving their pups alone for up to eight days at a time as they are forced to travel further in search of food. The pups aren’t eating as much or as frequently and they are weaning themselves early out of desperation and striking out on their own even though they are underweight and can’t hunt properly.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say an El Nino weather pattern is to blame. North winds, which stir up the coastal waters in the spring and bring colder, nutrient-rich swells to the surface, are just now starting to materialize off California and might bring some relief over time. The warming off California is likely the result of regional weather patterns rather than a direct effect of global warming, said Nate Mantua, a NOAA research scientist based in Santa Cruz, California.

Yes. In 1998, a strong El Nino weather pattern led to significant warming in Pacific coastal waters and 2,500 sea lion pups were found washed up on California beaches. A large number also washed ashore in 2013. Current numbers are on track to surpass the 1998 record but have not done so yet, said Justin Viezbicke, coordinator for NOAA’s California Stranding Network.

It’s unclear. This year’s crisis probably won’t have any immediate effect but several years of such big losses could reduce the sea lion population in the future. Currently, there are about 300,000 sea lions and the numbers of dead pups represents less than 1 percent of the total population, said Viezbicke. The number of pups born each year in the past few years is also much greater than during previous episodes of coastal warming in the 1990s.

Many of the sea lion pups are beyond help by the time they are reported to authorities. Some die at the rescue centers and others are euthanized. Those that do survive are tube-fed until they regain their strength and then released back into the wild. NOAA doesn’t have a tally of how many have been successfully treated and released. The ones being released are tagged with a number but placing satellite trackers on all of them is too costly so scientists aren’t sure how many are making it.

People who live in California can volunteer at a rescue center. Most centers are now running at full capacity and aren’t able to take many new sea lion pups in but they still need extra hands. Another alternative is to donate money. A map showing the marine rescue centers helping sea lions, along with contact information, can be found here:

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