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Warming West Coast Waters Are Losing Productivity, Says NOAA

Mar 17, 2015 04:48 PM EDT
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It's no secret that climate change has been affecting our oceans, with things like warming surface temperatures and rising acidity affecting various species across the world. Now a new report has revealed that the West Coast of North America may be feeling changes so intense that it is altering the overall productivity of local waters, leading to a reduction in marine species spanning from seabirds to salmon.

"We are seeing unprecedented changes in the environment," Toby Garfield, Director of the Environmental Research Division at the NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said when presenting these results to the Pacific Fishery Management Council this week.

He added that climate and ecological indicators are "pointing toward lower primary productivity" off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington in particular.

Primarily, the report centers around the state of the California Current - the large network of Pacific Ocean currents that move southward along the West Coast to break away into deeper water just off southern Baja California.

The report details how "record-high sea surface temperatures combined with shifts in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, North Pacific Gyre Oscillation and weaker upwelling of deep, cold waters indicate declining productivity in the California Current."

Additionally, multiple field surveys have revealed that important energy-rich organisms called copepods - a primary base for the general food chain - have seen significant decline in the past few years. They are being bullied out by an alternate copepod population more adapted for warmer water - plankton that, unfortunately, serve as a poorer source of nourishment. (Scroll to read on...)

Copepods form the foundation of the West Coast marine food chain but the lean copepods associated with warm water provide far less energy
(Photo : NOAA Fisheries/Northwest Fisheries Science Center) Copepods form the foundation of the West Coast marine food chain but the lean copepods associated with warm water provide far less energy

This could mean that countless predators along the West Coast are at risk, where voracious eaters like salmon, sea birds, and even sea lions could be facing starvation.

And there has been strong evidence that this is exactly what's happening. Starving sea lion pups are washing up on California shores at an increasingly alarming rate, and many experts suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that the mammals simply don't have enough food to go around. However, it's important to note that the NOAA also estimates that Pacific sea lions boast a population hovering around 300,000 - potentially well over what even a healthy West Coast ecosystem could support.

But that's not all. The NOAA is also associating the mass deaths of countless Cassin's auklets with the ocean's productivity decline. Nature World News has previously reported how warming waters may not have sabotaged the birds entirely. But if hungry birds stay out at sea longer hunting for food, they are also more likely to get caught in sudden storms.

"We're seeing some major environmental shifts taking place that could affect the ecosystem for years to come," added John Stein, Director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "We need to understand and consider their implications across the ecosystem, which includes communities and people." (Scroll to read on...)

A sea surface temperature map shows a large expanse of unusually warm ocean water encompassing much of the West Coast. Darker red shades indicate sea surface temperatures farther above average.
(Photo : NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center) A sea surface temperature map of the NA West Coast. Darker red shades indicate sea surface temperatures farther above average.

The report even adds that while the incredibly severe drought that is currently rocking California is likely driven by natural climate patterns, its impact on local aquatic populations is being exacerbated by the warming waters of climate change.

Salmon in particular face these hardships from three fronts, where low snowpack from a warming Northwest and drought in California are shrinking rivers and streams, even as the Pacific's reduced ocean productivity means less food for juveniles.

And while the report's authors admit that the impact of these factors would not be felt just yet, they warn that a wild salmon sustainability "bubble" could pop in only a few more generations.

"We are in some ways entering a situation we haven't seen before," said Cisco Werner, Director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif. "That makes it all the more important to look at how these conditions affect the entire ecosystem because different components and different species may be affected differently."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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