July 29, 2005 – The Farallon Islands just north of San Francisco are big granite mountains that jut dramatically out of the sea, providing a fit backdrop for the unsettling mystery that has unfolded there over the past several months and underscored scientistsâ€™ calls for more ocean research.
The islands are home to the largest seabird colony in the continental United States, with about 250,000 birds from a dozen breeding species. But this year, things are far from normal in the avian domain there: many species of birds have failed to breed or have abandoned their nests. On the coast, scientists report, a large number of dead birds have washed onto the shore. Ninety-seven percent of them appear to have died from starvation.
"We havenâ€™t seen this before," said Russ Bradley, a senior biologist at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a nonprofit organization that for 35 years has conducted seabird research along the California coast and the longest term monitoring program for seabirds in the northern Hemisphere. "Itâ€™s the worst year ever for [the] species[that we study]; itâ€™s kind of concerning."
Scientists and fishermen from Canadaâ€™s Vancouver Island all the way to Santa Barbara report similar findings of increased numbers of dead birds and low breeding rates. Furthermore, they report other species are also struggling: juvenile rockfish populations are the smallest in 23 years; sea lion numbers are down; and federal surveys of juvenile salmon off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia indicate as much as a 30 percent drop in population. Scientists at the Department of Commerceâ€™s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report that where they normally catch several hundred salmon in the spring, this year they caught eight.
What is not known â€“ and what concerns activists, fishermen and policy makers â€“ is whether this year is an anomaly, part of a natural cycle, or an indicator of global warming and a harbinger of changes to come.
The populations of such birds and fish are indicators of ecosystem health, so scientists are scrambling to understand what these grim numbers say about the ocean.
Here is what they know: the winds that in normal years churn the ocean, dragging cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep to the surface, were absent or weak this spring. Without such upwelling, plankton and krill, basic elements of the food web, did not make it to the surface and were not available for consumption. This lack of food is the likely cause of the fish and bird die-offs.
But what is not known â€“ and what concerns activists, fishermen and policy makers â€“ is whether this year is an anomaly, part of a natural cycle, or an indicator of global warming and a harbinger of changes to come.
"Global warming is the Godzilla in the room," said Warner Chabot of The Ocean Conservancy, a group that advocates improving ocean health but has stayed away from directly tackling climate change. "It makes me wonder, are we in a sense rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while meanwhile the whole ship is sinking?"
â€œItâ€™s a mismatch thatâ€™s really troublesome: With climate change weâ€™re putting a burden on the next several generations, and how do you think about that when youâ€™re a politician?â€ --Jerry Mellilo, Ecologist
Studies do indicate that the oceans are warming: researchers at the World Data Center for Oceanography have found that in the past 50 years the upper 10,000 feet of the worldâ€™s oceans have warmed by .037 degrees Centigrade. Though the number seems small, it represents a significant change, considering the volume involved, and the effect even slight temperature shifts can have on the oceanâ€™s more delicate inhabitants.
A report released this month by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a federal agency, found that the oceansâ€™ surface temperatures in 2004â€™s spring and summer were the warmest in 50 years. Even so, because coastal upwelling zones are prone to temperature fluctuations from year-to-year, it is impossible to pin the disappearance of upwelling and krill off the West Coast on global climate change.
"No source can say what caused the wind to fail this year. We do not think it is global warming but it might be," said Nathan Mantua, a climate scientist at the University of Washington. "I donâ€™t really have a good explanation for this. This could just be random behavior in the climate system."
Mantua explained that over the past 100 years, there have been perhaps five or six events like the recent shift. With such limited data, he said, it is "a challenge to make meaningful statistical statements."
Ecologist Jerry Melillo says such uncertainty brings into clear focus the need for more long-term data about how oceans work. He explained that the repetitive research of gathering measurements, though not very exciting to the public, is absolutely necessary for noticing change. Melillo is president of the Ecological Society of America and co-director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Yet the way that the government generally funds such science is on a three- to five-year basis, and that makes researchers nervous that different administrations can prioritize other types of inquiry, especially in light of overstretched budgets.
"How do we do science that addresses long-term issues that are longer than the tenure of any congressman, president or senator?" asked Melillo. "Weâ€™re asking about science thatâ€™s decadal to half-century to century in scope, but [the politicians] are living in an environment where the next election is two years away."
He continued: "Itâ€™s a mismatch thatâ€™s really troublesome: With climate change weâ€™re putting a burden on the next several generations, and how do you think about that when youâ€™re a politician? Some of the long-term priorities of this administration are not necessarily clear in respect to the environment."
Thatâ€™s in large part why a group of fishermen on the West Coast wants Congress to remove funding for fisheries and oceans research from the politically charged Congressional budget appropriations process. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermenâ€™s Associations, a nonprofit umbrella group based in San Francisco, proposes that Congress develop a trust fund for fisheries and ocean research that would be fed by a 2.5 percent tax, on all seafood sold in the United States.
Zeke Grader, director of the group, estimates that the trust fund, held by the US Treasury and managed by NOAA, would raise $3 billion annually. The group is still working to find a lawmaker who will sponsor the legislation, but both the nonprofit Pew Oceans Commission and the Bush administration-appointed US Commission on Ocean Policy have embraced the general concept.
The bottom line, said Grader, is that the events of this spring and summer underscore the need to pay greater attention to the ocean ecosystem.
"I donâ€™t want to sound alarmist, but we need to watch carefully to see what the hell is going on," said Grader. "We are seeing almost no krill, and thatâ€™s a good indication that we might have problems in the future."