Posts Tagged west coast

Sep 5 2019

New Marine Heatwave Emerges off West Coast, Resembles “the Blob”

Researchers are monitoring a new marine heatwave off the West Coast for effects on the marine ecosystem.

Sea surface temperature anomaly maps show temperatures above normal in orange and red.


About five years ago “the Blob” of warm ocean water disrupted the West Coast marine ecosystem and depressed salmon returns. Now, a new expanse of unusually warm water has quickly grown in much the same way, in the same area, to almost the same size.

The warm expanse building off the West Coast stretches roughly from Alaska south to California. It ranks as the second largest marine heatwave in terms of area in the northern Pacific Ocean in the last 40 years, after “the Blob.”

“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” said Andrew Leising, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. He developed a system for tracking and measuring heatwaves in the Pacific Ocean using satellite data. “Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen.”

Cold water welling up from ocean depths along the coast has so far held the warm expanse offshore, he said. However, the upwelling, driven by coastal winds, usually wanes in the fall. The heatwave could then move onshore and affect coastal temperatures, he said. This already appears to have happened along the coast of Washington.

The new marine heatwave off the West Coast stands out in this map of sea surface temperature anomalies, with darker red denoting temperatures farther above average. The highest temperatures shown are more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average. Image from NOAA Coral Reef Watch, which corrects effectively for cloud cover.

NOAA Fisheries is focusing additional monitoring on the new heatwave, designated the Northeast Pacific Marine Heatwave of 2019. NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest and Northwest Fisheries Science Centers will provide fisheries managers and others with information on how the unusually warm conditions could affect the marine ecosystem and fish stocks.

“We learned with ‘the Blob’ and similar events worldwide that what used to be unexpected is becoming more common,” said Cisco Werner, NOAA Fisheries Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor. “We will continue to inform the public about how the heatwave is evolving, and what we might anticipate based on experience.”

The new heatwave resembles the early stages of “the Blob.” This previous marine heat wave peaked through 2014 and 2015 with temperatures close to seven degrees Fahrenheit above average.

Blob Could Dissipate Quickly

Like “the Blob,” the new heatwave emerged over the past few months. A ridge of high pressure dampened the winds that otherwise mix and cool the ocean’s surface. The heatwave remains relatively new and is primarily affecting the upper layers of the ocean, it could break up rapidly.

“It looks bad, but it could also go away pretty quickly if the unusually persistent weather patterns that caused it change,” said Nate Mantua, a research scientist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Current forecasts show the heat wave moderating but continuing for months.

A key question is whether the new heatwave will last long enough to affect the marine ecosystem. Biologists say that its large size means it probably already has. For example, warmer conditions during “the Blob” left lesser-quality food available to young salmon entering the ocean. It also shifted predator distributions in ways that contributed to low returns of salmon.

Shifts in the marine food web during the evolution of the 2014-2015 marine heatwave called, “the Blob,” forced sea lion mothers to forage further from their rookeries in the Channel Islands off Southern California. Hungry pups set out on their own, but many became stranded on area beaches. 

Other impacts linked to the earlier heatwave include:

  • The largest harmful algal bloom recorded on the West Coast, which shut down crabbing and clamming for months.
  • Thousands of young California sea lions stranding on beaches.
  • Multiple declared fishery disasters.

NOAA Fisheries scientists recently convened a special meeting to discuss the emerging heatwave and how to anticipate and track its effects. They are now reviewing impacts documented during the “the Blob” to compare them against the effects of the emerging heatwave.

“Given the magnitude of what we saw last time, we want to know if this evolves on a similar path,” said Chris Harvey, a research scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Monitoring Framework in Place

NOAA Fisheries’ two West Coast laboratories collaborate on the California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment. This is a joint effort to track and interpret environmental change off the West Coast. That provides a framework to monitor shifting conditions, Harvey said.

One challenge will be applying lessons learned from the last heat wave to anticipate and mitigate potential impacts of the new one. For example, the warm water of “the Blob” led humpback and other whales to feed closer to shore. Record numbers became entangled in lines from crab traps and other fishing gear.

In response, fishermen, managers, and others have formed working groups in California, Oregon, and Washington. They hope to find ways of reducing the risk of entanglements.

The marine heatwave that has formed off the West Coast of North America is currently close to the warmest area in the Pacific Ocean. Map shows sea surface temperature anomalies, with darker orange representing temperatures farther above average. Image from NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service.


Real-time research on environmental changes will give managers the details they need to respond, said Kristen Koch, Director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “This is a time when we all need to know how our marine ecosystem is changing, and what that means for those of us who live along the West Coast.”

The new northeast Pacific heatwave reflects current weather patterns. This includes a band of high pressure stretching north to the Bering Sea and Alaska, which have been unusually warm in recent years, said Nick Bond, a research meteorologist with the Joint Institute for the study of the Atmosphere and Ocean in Seattle, a collaboration between NOAA and the University of Washington.

“There are definitely concerning implications for the ecosystem,” said Bond, who is credited with naming “the Blob.” “It’s all a matter of how long it lasts and how deep it goes.”

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Jun 30 2017

Mysterious ‘sea pickles’ invade the West Coast

Warming waters may be the cause


Pyrosomes are usually found in more tropical waters, but started to appear on the West Coast in 2014. They are made of many small multicellular organisms, “linked together in a tunic to form a tubelike colony that is closed on one end,” according to a release from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A research trip by NOAA in May showed large populations of pyrosomes stretching from approximately 40 to 200 miles off the Oregon coast.

Aaron Baldwin, a fishery biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said fishermen were seeing pyrosomes “every few inches.”

“They were reporting them everywhere,” he said.

Pyrosomes off the Oregon coast in May, 2017.

Fishing nightmare

Milstein said the beauty of the creatures can be startling. “When looking at underwater pics of these guys, it’s kinda like looking at the stars.”

Not only are pyrosomes large in numbers, they can also be more than two feet long, leading to complications for fishing boats. Milstein said he’s heard of fishermen towing a net for five minutes and picking up 60,000 pyrosomes. “We’ve heard stories of some nets breaking under the weight of these things.”

According to Baldwin, the pyrosomes first appeared this February, stopping some fishermen in their tracks. “People were not fishing,” Baldwin said, “just returning to port.”

While the number of pyrosomes is down in Alaska from where it was earlier in the year, Baldwin said people are still feeling the impact they had. “Some of these seasons are pretty short,” he said. “So delays like this can have a big impact.”

Originally posted:

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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Sep 1 2015

NASA: Rising Seas About to Catch Up With the West Coast

Screen-Shot-2015-08-26-at-3.31.32-PMNASA Animation shows the wide variance in sea level rise in recent years. The pale coloration along the West Coast illustrates a lower rate of rise. (NASA Scientific Visualization Studio)

Rising Seas are about to become a bigger issue for the West Coast, according to scientists.

Using satellite and other data, NASA scientists have been tracking rising sea levels around the world. They say that natural cycles in the Pacific have been masking effects of sea rise for about the last 20 years. But that’s changing.

“In the next five or ten years, I think the west coast of the United States is going to catch up,” says Josh Willis, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He says a major ocean phase known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is in the midst of a big shift.

For about the past two decades, the PDO, which Willis describes as “El Niño’s bigger, slower, brother,” was “piling up” warmer water on the far side of the ocean, exacerbating sea rise there. When water warms, it expands.

“So we’ve actually seen a slight drop in sea levels off of our coastline  because of the rearrangement of heat within the oceans,” Willis explains.

That rearrangement could mean an acceleration in the rate that seas rise long the West Coast, eventually overtaking the pace of sea level rise on the East Coast and elsewhere.

“We could be looking at rates in the eastern Pacific two or three times as high as the global rates in the coming years,” says Willis. “So we could be in for wild ride over the next 20 years or so.”

As KQED and San Francisco Public Press have reported recently, billions in shoreline development in the Bay Area are in the planning stages or already begun, despite scientists’ warnings about rising seas.

Scientists say the brewing El Niño will also pile up warm water along California, making coastal flooding that much more likely, very soon. The warm water along the Equator that largely defines El Niño is expected to rival or surpass the legendary “Godzilla” El Niño of 1997-98 in strength.

NASA says global sea levels have risen about eight inches since the beginning of the 20th century and more than two inches in the last 20 years. Though simple thermal expansion of the water accounts for about a third of the rise so far, climate scientists expect melting glaciers and ice sheets to play a much larger role in coming years.


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Sep 1 2015

A Giant Glob of Deadly Algae Is Floating off the West Coast

Cells of pseudo-nitzschia, a type of algae that’s producing neurotoxins in the Pacific.

From the air, the Pacific algal bloom doesn’t look like much of a threat: a wispy, brownish stream, snaking up along the West Coast. But it’s causing amnesia in birds, deadly seizures in sea lions, and a crippling decline in the West Coast shellfish industry. Here’s what you need to know about it, from what this bloom has to do with the drought to why these toxins could be a real threat to the homeless.

What’s causing it? The culprits are single-celled, plant-like organisms called pseudo-nitzschia, a subset of the thousands of species of algae that produce more than 50 percent of the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis. They’re a hardy variety usually found in cool, shallow oceans, where they survive on light and dissolved nutrients, including silcates, nitrates, and phosphates. “They’re sort of like the dandelions of the sea,” says Vera Trainer, who manages the Marine Biotoxin Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “They’re always there in some low numbers, just waiting for nutrients to be resupplied to the ocean’s surface.” In most years, blooms in the eastern Pacific are contained near “hot spots” that dot the West Coast—relatively shallow and sheltered places like California’s Monterey Bay or the Channel Islands. They usually flare up in April or May as trade winds cycle nutrient-rich waters from offshore depths to the coast in a process called “upwelling,” but they fade after only a few weeks.

Why is it sticking around so long? The jury’s still out, but scientists are beginning to get a clearer idea. These past few years have been “incredibly weird” in the northeast Pacific, says Nate Mantua, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz. He points to the same “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure that’s been causing the historic drought in the western United States: This pressure also resulted in a pool of exceptionally warm water in the Pacific (known as “the blob”), with little weather to disperse it. Those conditions, along with prevailing winds and colder currents that ferry nutrients back to the coast, seem to be supplying the algae with a seemingly endless feast.

That makes the source of this bloom different from its cousin in the Gulf of Mexico, where fertilizers flowing from as far as Iowa are feeding a zone of algae that’s as large as New Jersey. “We’re seeing them in relatively pristine waters of the US West Coast,” Trainer explains, though she adds runoff and sewage discharge may be playing some role in the blooms off Southern California.

So just how big is this thing? Bigger than researchers have ever seen: a patchy stream that stretches from Southern California up along the Alaskan coast. The hot spot blooms that appear each spring are merging for the first time, Trainer explains. Though the combined mass has ebbed and flowed over the past four months, it hasn’t let up; her team finds algae each time they journey out to sea, with no signs of abatement soon. And it’s also unusually potent. “These are the highest levels of toxicity we’ve ever seen,” says Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “It’s a truly extraordinary phenomenon.”

Levels of chlorophyll, viewed from space, indicate where algae is present in the waters of the Pacific. NOAA

How deadly are these “dandelions”? The algae produce a compound called domoic acid, a type of amino acid that leads to a condition commonly known as “amnesic shellfish poisoning” in humans. Shellfish and some small fish, like sardines and anchovies, feed on the algae and concentrate the toxin in their flesh. When animals further up the food chain—like birds—eat those fish and shellfish, the domoic acid seeps into the bloodstream and eventually the brain, where it attacks cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s command center for memory and learning. The result: amnesia-stricken birds that will repeatedly fly into windows, and sea lions that writhe on the shore, plagued by seizures. Both are symptoms of rapidly firing neurons in the hippocampus, which will eventually burn out and kill the animal. Beaches have been littered with dead fish, birds, and sea lions up and down the Pacific coast since May—all the way up to Alaska, where NOAA is investigating the deaths of fin whales in connection with the toxin.
Will it kill me? Probably not. Amnesic shellfish poisoning was discovered in 1987, when what was then a mysterious illness killed three people and sickened 105 more on Prince Edward Island, Canada. But cases since then have been rare. That’s due to a bevy of regulations that shut down recreational shellfish harvesting when toxicity spikes and require commercial shellfish operations to test each batch for toxins. Those moratoriums have cut into Washington’s $84 million crab industry, while a ban on recreational clam digging has hurt smaller, more remote communities, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Trainer points to indigenous regions in coastal Washington, like the Quinault Indian Nation, where many members make ends meet by harvesting razor clams for healthy meals in the winter. Though fish are also tested, the toxins seep into their guts, which don’t usually find their way to the dinner table.
Researchers are also investigating what low levels of domoic acid can do to the brain over many years of exposure. Trainer cautions that the mild symptoms of low-level contamination mean most people wouldn’t be aware of the problem: “They might think they have a cold, or a little flu,” she says. Results from an ongoing inquiry into the effects of domoic acid on Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest have found evidence of memory and learning impairment, while studies in sea lions found antibodies for domoic acid, suggesting even low-level contamination can cause an adverse physiological response. Kudela also suggests that the homeless around Monterey Bay, where his team is located, could be looking to shellfish as a free meal, inadvertently exposing themselves to the toxins.

What happens next? Researchers are waiting for this fall’s big coastal storms, which should churn up waters and disperse the nutrients that allow the algae to thrive. Those systems should gather between late September in the Pacific Northwest and early winter in California. But from then on it’s harder to say. The “blob” could persist through or return after the El Niño expected this winter. But if it is strong enough, the El Niño could also lead to less predictable conditions come spring and even make another large bloom unlikely for years to come, explains Mantua, the NOAA climate scientist. That would make this current, extreme algal bloom look more like an anomaly than a new trend.

Still, even if the coast sees some relief from algae for the next few years, big changes can be expected in the coming decades as oceans warm worldwide. That could produce more hospitable conditions for algae and lead to different ecological threats, like red tides and dead zones, in the Pacific. “I think this is a window into the future,” Trainer says. “We can expect more of this to come.”


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Jun 17 2015

Toxic algae bloom might be largest ever

Scientists onboard a NOAA research vessel are beginning a survey of what could be the largest toxic algae bloom ever recorded off the West Coast.

A team of federal biologists set out from Oregon Monday to survey what could be the largest toxic algae bloom ever recorded off the West Coast.

The effects stretch from Central California to British Columbia, and possibly as far north as Alaska. Dangerous levels of the natural toxin domoic acid have shut down recreational and commercial shellfish harvests in Washington, Oregon and California this spring, including the lucrative Dungeness crab fishery off Washington’s southern coast and the state’s popular razor-clam season.

At the same time, two other types of toxins rarely seen in combination are turning up in shellfish in Puget Sound and along the Washington coast, said Vera Trainer, manager of the Marine Microbes and Toxins Programs at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

“The fact that we’re seeing multiple toxins at the same time, we’re seeing high levels of domoic acid, and we’re seeing a coastwide bloom — those are indications that this is unprecedented,” Trainer said.

Scientists suspect this year’s unseasonably high temperatures are playing a role, along with “the blob” — a vast pool of unusually warm water that blossomed in the northeastern Pacific late last year. The blob has morphed since then, but offshore waters are still about two degrees warmer than normal, said University of Washington climate scientist Nick Bond, who coined the blob nickname.

“This is perfect plankton-growing weather,” said Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Domoic-acid outbreaks aren’t unusual in the fall, particularly in razor clams, Ayres said. But the toxin has never hit so hard in the spring, or required such widespread closures for crabs.

“This is new territory for us,” Ayres said. “We’ve never had to close essentially half our coast.”

Heat is not the only factor spurring the proliferation of the marine algae that produce the toxins, Trainer said. They also need a rich supply of nutrients, along with the right currents to carry them close to shore.

Scientists onboard the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada will collect water and algae samples, measure water temperatures and also test fish like sardines and anchovies that feed on plankton. The algae studies are being integrated with the ship’s prime mission, which is to assess West Coast sardine and hake populations.

The ship will sample from the Mexican border to Vancouver Island in four separate legs.

“By collecting data over the full West Coast with one ship, we will have a much better idea of where the bloom is, what is causing it, and why this year,” University of California, Santa Cruz ocean scientist Raphael Kudela said in an email.

He and his colleagues found domoic-acid concentrations in California anchovies this year as high as any ever measured. “We haven’t seen a bloom that is this toxic in 15 years,” he wrote. “This is possibly the largest event spatially that we’ve ever recorded.”

On Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, Ayres recently spotted a sea lion wracked by seizures typical of domoic-acid poisoning. The animal arched its neck repeatedly, then collapsed into a fetal position and quivered. “Clearly something neurological was going on,” he said.

Wildlife officials euthanized the creature and collected fecal samples that confirmed it had eaten prey — probably small fish — that in turn had fed on the toxic algae.

Ayres’ crews collect water and shellfish samples from around the state, many of which are analyzed at the Washington Department of Health laboratory in Seattle. DOH also tests commercially harvested shellfish, so consumers can be confident that anything they buy in a market is safe to eat, said Jerry Borchert, the state’s marine biotoxin coordinator.

But for recreational shellfish fans, the situation has been fraught this year even inside Puget Sound.

“It all really started early this year,” Borchert said.

Domoic-acid contamination is rare in Puget Sound, but several beds have been closed this year because of the presence of the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and a relatively new threat called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP). The first confirmed case of DSP poisoning in the United States occurred in 2011 in a family that ate mussels from Sequim Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, Borchert said.

But 2015 is the first time regulators have detected dangerous levels of PSP, DSP and domoic acid in the state at the same time — and in some cases, in the same places, he said. “This has been a really bad year overall for biotoxins.”

Over the past decade, Trainer and her colleagues have been working on models to help forecast biotoxin outbreaks in the same way meteorologists forecast long-term weather patterns, like El Niño. They’re also trying to figure out whether future climate change is likely to bring more frequent problems.

At a recent conference in Sweden on that very question, everyone agreed that “climate change, including warmer temperatures, changes in wind patterns, ocean acidification, and other factors will influence harmful algal blooms,” Kudela wrote. “But we also agreed we don’t really have the data yet to test those hypotheses.”

On past research voyages, Trainer and her team discovered offshore hot spots that seem to be the initiation points for outbreaks. There’s one in the so-called Juan de Fuca Eddy, where the California current collides with currents flowing from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Another is Heceta Bank, a shallow, productive fishing ground off the Oregon coast, where nutrient-rich water wells up from the deep.

“These hot spots are sort of like crockpots, where the algal cells can grow and get nutrients and just stew,” Trainer said.

Scientists have also unraveled the way currents can sweep algae from the crockpots to the shore. “But what we still don’t know is why are these hot spots hotter in certain years than others,” Trainer said. “Our goal is to try to put this story together once we have data from the cruises.”

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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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Nov 14 2013

State-of-the-art fishery research vessel Reuben Lasker completed for NOAA to commission in 2014

Seafood News
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [] November 13, 2013 – NOAA has taken delivery of Reuben Lasker, the agency’s newest high-tech fisheries survey vessel from Marinette Marine Corporation, a Fincantieri company. The 208-ft. ship will primarily support fish, marine mammals and turtle surveys off the U.S. West Coast and in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

“Reuben Lasker represents a significant milestone in the agency’s efforts to provide world-class marine science platforms,” said Rear Adm. Michael S. Devany, director of the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and the NOAA Corps. “This state-of-the-art ship will play a key role in supporting NOAA’s mission and serving the nation.”

Built at MMC’s shipyard in Marinette, Wisc., and funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Reuben Lasker is the fifth in a series of Oscar Dyson-class ships built for the agency. The ship is equipped with the latest technology for fisheries and oceanographic research, including advanced navigation systems, acoustic sensors, and scientific sampling gear.

“MMC has a long, established history of delivering exceptionally crafted and complex vessels,” said Chuck Goddard, MMC’s president and CEO. “The talented and skilled workers of MMC are proud to deliver this high quality vessel to NOAA in support of its important mission.”

The ship is also engineered to produce much less noise than other survey vessels, allowing scientists to study fish populations and collect oceanographic data with fewer effects on fish and marine mammal behavior. The ship’s comprehensive environmental sampling capabilities will enable researchers to gather a broad suite of marine life data with unprecedented accuracy.

Read the full article here.

Jul 13 2012

California Still Leaving Plenty of Fish in the Sea



 Letters to the Editor

Re “Fisherman agree: Big fish need little fish” (Viewpoints, June 22):

The article omitted key facts the public should understand about California’s fisheries. Appealing to the Pacific Fishery Management Council to “forestall the harvest of forage species that aren’t currently being fished,” the authors cited a Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force study finding that worldwide, forage fish are mostly ground into meal to feed livestock and farmed fish. This is untrue in California. They didn’t point out that according to the same report, we already leave plenty of forage fish in the sea. West Coast forage fisheries harvest only 2 percent of the total forage pool, leaving 98 percent in the ocean. The most important forage species on the West Coast are already well managed. The PFMC recently approved deliberative action, allowing more time for scientific analysis and the development of the most practical, effective management tools. This is a win for all, providing the most cost-effective and timely response to concerns that new fisheries might over-exploit forage species.


— Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director, California Wetfish Producers Association

Read more via the Sacramento Bee.