Not long into a survey cruise off the Oregon Coast in June, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist Jen Zamon began to wonder, “Where are all the birds?”
Two seabird species in particular make up the vast majority of the birds she expects to see on these near shore research trips: common murres, a diving bird related to puffins, and sooty shearwaters, a relative of the albatross that migrates from New Zealand.
But now long stretches of time would pass between sightings.
“This seems really weird,” she thought. “Is it just me?”
Researchers also lowered a net 90 feet across and down to a depth of 60 feet to sample what was in the water. This net can, and does, catch anything: schools of anchovy, sardines, jellyfish. This time, it kept coming up almost empty: a single jellyfish, one salmon. In Alaska, a group conducting similar research had yet to snag a spring Chinook salmon at a time when such landings would be routine.
The ocean seemed like a desert.
By all accounts, 2017 should have been a good year for salmon and other fish off the Oregon and Washington state coast. After two years of abnormally warm oceans, the region had a long, cold, rainy winter and the water was finally cooling. Upwelling had brought important nutrients — food — to the surface.
Instead, researchers have seen the opposite.
Early salmon runs came in below predictions; strange gelatinous creatures called pyrosomes appeared in unprecedented numbers, clogging fishing nets; and there are Zamon’s missing birds.
Researchers are still combing through data they collected in June, comparing it with what groups up and down the West Coast are seeing, but they have a theory: The past is still present.
The years of the Blob — a mass of warm water that persisted off the West Coast from 2013 to 2016 — of drought, of the largest El Niño recorded are gone, but the ocean and its creatures might still be reeling.
It’s as if, suggested Elizabeth Daly, a senior faculty research assistant with the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies, the ocean has been on a bender for the last two years and 2017 is the hangover.
In the last few years, record or near-record runs of salmon returned to the Columbia River. This fall, a total of 614,000 Chinook are expected to return to the river, slightly less than what came in last year.
The Buoy 10 recreational fishery that opened Tuesday (see related story on Page B3) is the first fishery to encounter these salmon. Beyond the Chinook return, the numbers for other runs are mixed. Low expected returns of summer steelhead will color how the Buoy 10 fishery rolls out as fishery managers try to reduce the take of these fish.
Daly and other researchers from Oregon State University and NOAA predicted that 2015’s historically poor ocean conditions would affect migrating yearling fish, the same fish that comprised the bulk of this year’s returning spring adult Chinook salmon. In 2015, the young salmon entering the ocean for the first time were much smaller and thinner than usual.
“It’s inevitable that returns were going to come down,” said John North, Columbia River fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The shocking thing was to have had three big salmon years in a row, North said. To get one or two is not unusual. “But to get three in a row is pretty impressive.”
But even as the Columbia River saw huge Chinook returns in past fall runs, people recorded rare sightings and unexpected declines.
Humpbacks breached in the Columbia River estuary in 2015 and have been regular visitors in the years since. That same year there were sightings of the massive, bullet-shaped mola mola, or ocean sunfish — rare this far north. Skinny coho and Chinook foraged for food off the Oregon and Washington state coasts. In Alaska, 3-year-old adult sockeye were extremely small and Oregon and Washington saw the lowest coho returns since the 1990s.
In 2016, lobster-like pelagic crabs more at home near the equator landed in Oregon. The Fraser River saw the highest return of chum salmon in 20 years but record low returns of sockeye. Then in 2017, just when everyone thought conditions might be returning to normal: pyrosomes, another animal more common in warm water, were everywhere.
Zamon finished crunching her numbers recently for the birds: This year the shearwater numbers were the fourth lowest she’s recorded in 13 years and she has never recorded such low numbers of common murres.
She saw the most birds — 97 percent of the shearwaters she recorded — between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. This is also where the researchers were seeing the most anchovies.
She believes lack of food in the area, as well as some disturbance from bald eagles, could be driving the birds elsewhere.
This type of information and the 2017 salmon runs are just the first reports back, said Laurie Weitkamp, a fisheries biologist with NOAA. She and others expect the coming years will reveal even more about just how bad things were in ocean in the last three years.
Crab off the Oregon and Washington coasts are usually 4 years old when they are harvested, she said. So the crab that were born during the years of the Blob are about 2 years old now.
“It’s going to be another two years before we really find out what happened,” Weitkamp said.
And the ocean is a big place with many factors at play. Things no one expects to happen occur constantly. This year it’s pyrosomes. In 2009, it was an invasion of Humboldt squid.
“More than anything,” Weitkamp said, “you don’t understand how a system works if it’s more or less the same every year. If you shake it up hard” — and the past three years have made for some strong convulsions — “you learn a lot. If you’re paying attention.”