Ocean waters

Ocean conditions appear to be improving but only time will tell whether salmon abundance rebounds to the point required for healthy orcas.

PACIFIC OCEAN — The ocean is still warmer than normal, but things appear to be looking up in West Coast waters — for now.

An annual status report on ecosystems in the California Current by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found there are indications the ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington state are cooler and more productive than they were during a marine heat wave that began in 2014 with a mass of warm water nicknamed “the Blob” and persisted through 2016.

Fish landings and revenue rebounded strongly in 2017 compared to 2016, with record hake landings and increases in crab leading the way, along with a bump in squid. Landings in other fisheries, however, did not see the same boost.

Good news for some

The cooler waters are good news for whales and salmon. Prey that salmon rely on appear to be in abundance, and indicators researchers use to predict juvenile and adult salmon survival increased slightly. There were no major seabird die-offs in 2018, and sea lion pups were finding enough to eat.

However, the ocean is still not as productive as it was before the heat wave. For researchers, there are lingering questions: Is this the new normal, where major events like marine heat waves routinely disrupt ocean creatures and fisheries? Or is the ocean truly going back to what it was like before 2014?

The last couple of years have been a slow transition away from the unproductive hot years, said Toby Garfield, the director of NOAA’s environmental research division, who co-edited the report. He and other researchers presented the ecosystem report to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council on March 7.

“The system is in transition, but to what?” Garfield said. “We’re not sure.”

Researchers saw an intense but short-lived heat surge last fall. Some theorized a new heat wave might be forming in the North Pacific. But a heat wave never fully established itself.

“That doesn’t mean it can’t re-establish,” Garfield said. Researchers have seen this happen before. Still, it was mostly gone by December and has not reformed as of February.

Troubling reminders

And there are troubling reminders of the recent past, evidence that the warm waters are still influencing the biology of the system, said Chris Harvey, of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and a co-editor of the report.

Researchers continued to see massive amounts of pyrosomes off the Oregon Coast in 2018. These semitranslucent “sea pickles,” more common in water warmer than what is usually found off the North Coast, showed up en masse in 2017. They gum up commercial fishing gear and feed on planktonic organisms that are important food to small fish, and, in turn, to larger marine creatures.

There are predictions for poor returns of Chinook salmon in 2019, fish that likely suffered in the conditions they found when they entered the ocean during the unusually warm years.

Harmful algal blooms have also been widespread. NOAA included information about the blooms in the assessment for the first time ever, acknowledging the impact of the events, which shut down popular and valuable razor clam and crab fisheries.

“This was clearly a problem and potentially related to the warmer-than-average conditions,” Harvey said.

Harmful algal blooms have proved to be a serious management issue for state fish and wildlife departments, shutting down and delaying fisheries. One of the largest toxic blooms ever recorded on the West Coast occurred during the hot years.

Whale entanglements in fishing gear also continued, likely influenced by harmful algal blooms, which altered where and when fishing gear might be present in the water.

Most of the confirmed reports of whale entanglement came from California, Harvey said. Of the confirmed reports, most involved humpback whales. Often the fishing gear the whales tangled with was not identified. When it was, it was often crab gear.

Researchers expect to see “hypoxic,” or dead zones, of low oxygen waters along the sea floor become widespread off the Oregon and Washington coasts this spring and summer — bad news for bottom dwellers — as well as corrosive waters caused by ocean acidification — bad news for shellfish.

Overall, Garfield said, the ocean seems to be continuing to cool and adjust.

“But it’s taking its time.”

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