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Year in Review: Ocean changes upend North Coast fisheries

BODEGA BAY - In any other year, the large bins of Dungeness crab that are loaded dockside in this busy fishing village and rolled out by truck to be sold and served during the holidays would seem like no big deal.

But after an unprecedented delay in the 2015-16 commercial season forced local crabbers to leave their boats tied up through winter and on into spring, the tons of meaty crustaceans that landed in port this month have been a welcome sign of normalcy restored, if only for a moment.

For here on the edge of the Pacific, where commercial fishing remains a way of life, once reliable ocean rhythms have been seriously unsettled of late, confounding those who depend on predictable, seasonal cycles and highlighting future uncertainties.

Even the current Dungeness season lurched off to a bumpy start, with the fishery opening piecemeal and mostly behind schedule, a symptom of widespread marine anomalies that have prevailed for the past three years, threatening everything from seabirds and sea lions to treasured catches such as salmon and abalone.

“The ocean is changing,” one glum crabber aboard the vessel New Horizon said while waiting to unload his catch recently at Tides Wharf. Offshore a strong storm was building and the fisherman summed up the fishing industry’s environmental troubles with hard-earned experience.

Irregularity “is starting to look like the new normal,” he said.

Scientists and fishermen alike are unsure about the degree to which recent upheaval fits within the ocean’s normal rhythms - which are complex - or whether it is part of some longer-term trend, perhaps linked to global climate change and its many ripple effects.

It’s likely a bit of both, given the context of the Earth’s warming, though more immediate atmospheric conditions have been the primary suspect, scientists say.

“Climate change syndrome is definitely having an impact,” said John Largier, professor of coastal oceanography at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. “What is very difficult to tell is how much.”

It appears that an expanse of high-temperature water along the coast of North American known as “the Warm Blob” is mostly to blame for recent disturbances affecting the coast of California, causing significant redistribution of wildlife, disruptions in the food web and large-scale mortality in a variety of animals.

First observed in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013, the blob was linked to a high pressure ridge parked over the north Pacific in 2011 that diverted winter storms, contributing to California’s drought and weakening winds that normally would help absorb heat from the ocean and stir up the cold water that makes the North Coast immensely productive breeding and feeding grounds for marine wildlife.

The blob was reinforced by warm El Niño waters driven north from the equatorial Pacific last year, contributing to what some scientists now think of as a “multi-year ocean heat wave,” with temperatures around 7 Fahrenheit above normal in some locations, but up to 10 degrees above normal in the most extreme examples, said Nate Mantua, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz.

“One of the things that is clear is there’s a lot of variation from year to year along the Pacific Coast, and some of that is tied into natural patterns, like El Niño,” Mantua said. “But what we saw in 2014, ’15 and the first part of ’16 was warmer than anything we’ve seen in our historical records, going back about 100 years.”

Notable impacts for the North Coast included last year’s persistent, widespread “red tide” - a bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia, a single-celled organism that thrives in warm water and produces a neurotoxin called domoic acid. In addition to contributing to fatalities among sea lions and other pinnipeds, the toxin shut down last year’s Dungeness crab fishery for 4½ months, including the lucrative holiday season, pushing many in the North Coast’s commercial fleet to the brink of insolvency.

The crisis isn’t over. Lingering toxicity along the California coast continued into early fall this year, though in a more localized distribution pattern, UC Santa Cruz professor of ocean health Raphael Kudela said during an October public hearing on fisheries and aquaculture.

Warmer-than-usual water also is believed to have contributed to the collapse of the bull kelp forest off Sonoma and Mendocino counties, along with an explosion of purple urchins that have devoured remaining plant life.

The urchins, in turn, are out-competing red abalone, the shellfish that attract thousands of sport divers and pickers each year to the Sonoma and Mendocino coast.

Evidence of starvation in abalone populations prompted authorities to impose new restrictions in the sport abalone fishery next year to limit the catch. The commercial red urchin fishery is suffering as well, as the larger, marketable red urchins starve.

Meanwhile, the commercial salmon harvest, California’s most valuable ocean fishery, continues to suffer, with spawning populations reduced significantly by the state’s prolonged drought.

Mass-starvation events have hit a spectrum of other West Coast marine wildlife, mostly due to the collapse of food chains brought on by warmer ocean water.

Large die-offs of Cassin’s auklets, a tiny seabird, were first noticed when dead birds began washing ashore in fall of 2014. A year later, it was malnourished and dead common murres that were found adrift.

Juvenile California sea lions, Guadalupe fur seals and other marine mammals have suffered for several years, as well, both from starvation and, to a lesser extent, from domoic acid poisoning.

The die-off of California sea lions, declared an “unusual mortality event” by scientists in early 2013, has taken a toll on the population, especially the young, with Southern California strandings peaking last year at a record-breaking 4,000, according to the NOAA Fisheries. About a third of the sea lions rescued received treatment at the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center.

Researchers believe nursing mothers had been unable to find enough forage, like sardines and anchovies, to properly nourish their young.

The situation for sea lions and seals appears to have improved somewhat this year, though sea lion strandings were still above 2,000. And there’s been encouraging news on the condition of pups surveyed this fall at Southern California birthing colonies, suggesting food availability may have stabilized somewhat as the warm blob relents, researchers said.

“The short story is that the warm ocean temperatures have moderated, but it’s still noticeably warmer than normal in a narrow strip right along the coast, the entire coast, of North America,” said Nicholas Bond, a research meteorologist with the University of Washington who first coined the term to describe the huge mass of warm water offshore.

There’s some reluctance among scientists and fishermen to predict what comes next.

Washington state fisherman Ron Anderson, who came south to catch crab because northern fisheries remained closed, said the ocean temperature had dropped 6 degrees since he and his crew arrived in the North Bay around Nov. 1.

Another crabber, Bob Monckton of Santa Rosa, said he’d recently seen another harbinger of cooling conditions. “I’ve seen more anchovies out there than I’ve seen in a while,” he said.

But it’s unclear how quickly, or if, the ocean will return to “normal,” or even what normal would be, given the relatively short period of time during which scientists have monitored conditions historically.

“Even when temperatures moderate,“ Bond said, “it takes a while for the biology to respond, so it’s still a fairly disrupted ecosystem.”

“But all that being said, I think the event is winding down, and - probably some time at the end of winter, spring next year - it will be kind of just a distant nightmare, rather than a current bad dream.”

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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