— Massive die-offs reported in Pacific Ocean; officials: “No fish out there, anywhere, over a very large area”… “What’s happening? Where’s their food?” — “Alarming… Frightening… Total failure in reproduction… Like nothing we’ve ever observed before” (VIDEO)

From ENE News

March 16, 2017

KTUU, Feb 14, 2017 (emphasis added): Following last year’s massive die-off of Alaskan seabirds, scientists still looking for answers… “Geographically and that it lasted a year, that’s unprecedented, [Kathy Kuletz, a biologist with US Fish & Wildlife Service]… “it’s certainly well over a hundred thousand and it could go many times that.”… “I would say possibly hundreds of thousands were killed… Almost always it’s been starvation… Sea birds are top predators,” [Heather Renner, biologist with Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge] said. “They’re sort of sentinels for our environment. They have definitely let us know that there’s change going on in the ocean ecosystem”… Renner says [the birds had an] exceptionally low birthing season… This reproductive die-off meant a “total failure” of murre reproduction that year… “The reproductive die off is something we’ve never seen in murres before, widespread. The refuge (AMNWR) has been monitoring these colonies for 4 decades and it’s like nothing we’ve ever observed before,” Renner said…

AP, Feb 10, 2017: [T]ens of thousands of common murres… starved and washed ashore on beaches from California to Alaska… “it’s because there’s no fish out there, anywhere, over a very large area,” [John Piatt, biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey] said. To see such effect over two sizeable marine ecosystems is extraordinary, he said… Common murres eat small forage fish [which] were largely absent when the National Marine Fisheries Service conducted surveys in summer 2015… A conservative extrapolation indicates 500,000 or more common murres died, Piatt said. Nearly all were emaciated… “In 2016, we had widespread breeding failure at all of the colonies in the Gulf of Alaska, as well as the Bering Sea,” Renner said. “It was a highly unusual event. Murres don’t fail regularly.”… “They died of starvation because there was no food,” Piatt said. “There was no food because there was no fish.”…

KYUK, Jan 25, 2017: “The birds were underweight to the point of starvation,” [Shannon Atkinson of the University of Alaska Fairbanks] said. The number of starved murres, and the length of their die-off, was something no one had seen before, but murres in the Gulf of Alaska were not the only seabirds to die in large numbers last year. Tufted puffins in the Bering Sea also showed up on beaches in large numbers… Scientists struggled to understand why a bird that spends most of the winter offshore eating fish would fly to the coast to die of starvation on the beach… research showed a link between the starving birds and trawl surveys that came up empty, or with only a few of the forage fish normally eaten by murres… “The main result to take away from this is the catch per unit effort for all of these species was very close to zero, meaning that the forage fish was simply not there,” Atkinson said.

KUCB, Dec 7, 2016: In the past two months, 300 dead puffins have washed up on St. Paul Island, alarming residents who had only seen six carcasses over the last decade… scientists say it could be the sign of a much larger ecosystem problem… [The co-director of St. Paul’s Ecosystem Conservation Office said] ‘There are dead puffins everywhere.’… The carcasses came ashore in waves… [Lauren Divine, co-director of St. Paul’s Ecosystem Conservation Office] said the extent of the die-off was frightening… “After we opened up the first five, it was very apparent that all of them were emaciated,” she said. “Their muscles were completely atrophied. They had empty stomachs. They had gastrointestinal bleeding, which indicates severe long-term starvation. They were in very, very poor shape… So we started digging into this more,” said Divine. “What is happening? Where is their food?“… [T]he ECO office is also seeing signs of stress in other species. [Divine] said the island’s seabirds laid barely any eggs this season, hunters had a hard time finding sea lions, and crab quotas were cut sharply after a survey showed low numbers.

Watch KTVA’s broadcast here

http://enenews.com/massive-die-offs-reported-in-pacific-ocean-officials-theres-no-fish-out-there-anywhere-over-a-very-large-area-what-is-happening-where-is-their-food-alarming-frightening

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— Mortality events are becoming larger, but most are unstudied, uncounted; scientists have never seen these conditions before, can’t explain cause of sea star disease; ocean conditions the new normal by 2046

The vast majority of die-offs are like the ones here — unstudied, uncounted or reported only in newspapers. Still, scientists tracking the largest mass mortality events have found that the ones they can count are becoming larger — killing more birds, fish and marine invertebrates.

…the sea stars’ pandemic began before the anomalously warm “Blob” of water appeared in the Gulf of Alaska, spreading across places with vastly different environmental conditions, linked to temperature in some places but not others.

Last winter, tens of thousands of murres starved to death. This summer, the remaining murres abandoned their nesting colonies and failed to raise chicks.

…a phytoplankton community with…smaller cells

…How weird is all this? And does it all fit together?

…”The system is just really variable,” said Katrin Iken, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It’s hard to pick out a change that is different than that variability.”

So, variability is the problem????

…”Mother Nature [???] is giving us this huge natural [???]experiment,” [Kris] Holderied [oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA] said. “The conditions we’ve been seeing, we’ve never seen them before. They’re three or four standard deviations above the normal — but by 2046, this will be normal.”

The enormous monster in the room — how long can the pseudo-scientific community avert its eyes?

From ADN

Kachemak Bay has seen massive die-offs of sea stars and other species. What’s going on?

by Erin McKittrick
November 14, 2017

JAKOLOF BAY — I came to the beach to count sea star corpses. You might know them as starfish — stiff, five-pointed bodies like a child’s drawing of a star, crayon-bright. About 10 species once were common in the intertidal zone here, with different colors and shapes and numbers of rays — hundreds of which had been dismembered and scattered over the beach, as if a monster had stalked through before us, tearing their bodies apart.

The monster is sea star wasting disease. Broken patches on the skin turn into fissures, with brown globs of sea star insides leaking through the cracks. Within days, the stars turn limp, fall off rocks, shed arms and melt away into soft, wet puddles.

The tide sweeps over them, scattering their last remains. We’re left with an absence, another mystery, and an ocean that seems to be shifting too quickly for anyone to keep up.

A few months earlier, my kids and I kicked the eagle-scavenged carcasses of murres off one of our favorite camping spots before heading down to low tide among a mass of then-alive sea stars. The birds were leftovers of last winter’s die-off, when tens of thousands of murres starved to death and washed up along beaches all over Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Biologists counted more dead seabirds than they ever had before, but there were more than anyone could count, leading to the second consecutive summer of empty nesting colonies, a silencing of the usual raucous chatter of sex and birth.

It was also the second summer in a row with no clams or clammers on Ninilchik beaches, and no young clams to promise a recovery. Otters washed up dead on the shores of Kachemak Bay. Dead whales rotted on the surface, and live whales lingered in our fjords late into last winter, months past their usual departure.

Eagle-scavenged murre carcasses found in summer 2016 (Ground Truth Trekking photo)
Eagle-scavenged murre carcasses found in summer 2016 (Ground Truth Trekking photo)

How weird is all this? And does it all fit together?

“That’s the question we’re all trying to answer,” said Kris Holderied, oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. While we talked, whitecaps swept down Cook Inlet, where she had hoped to be out on a boat, monitoring the ocean. Rain spattered against the roof, and punctuated the cellphone signal with brief gaps of static. It fell on the ocean, and flowed from the rivers, creating a layer of freshwater that floated and spread across the Gulf of Alaska.

“The last two winters, we never had the big cold-air outbreak, cooling the northern Gulf of Alaska. It rained all winter long, and that freshwater stabilized the water column. Not only are you not cooling it, but it stops nutrients from mixing, and changes what happens with the plankton.”

Blooms of a plankton called Alexandrium, associated with warm water, burst into Kachemak Bay, giving us our first high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxin recorded in more than a decade.

Pseudo-nitzschia, another blooming plankton, left domoic acid, another neurotoxin, in its wake. Holderied’s research focuses on the most basic parts of the ocean — the temperature, the nutrients and these smallest pieces of life. From there, currents swirl and plankton are swallowed by a complex food web of largely unseen creatures, until there’s something dramatic enough for us to notice.

Vanishing sea stars

Katie Aspen Gavenus, a naturalist with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, was one of the first to notice the dying sea stars.

Gavenus’ job has her out in tidepools all summer, teaching schoolchildren and guests about the creatures. She could always make an impression with a sunflower star. Bright orange to deep purple, these stars are larger than the lid of a 5-gallon bucket, with up to two dozen creeping arms. They’re voracious predators, simultaneously fuzzy, spiny and slimy to the touch, gliding over the kelp beds with startling speed.

“I picked up one that appeared to be completely healthy, and I was showing it to some guests — a family — supporting it with two hands,” she said. “Then a ray fell off. Then another one. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t know how to explain it to them — that it was dying in front of their eyes.”

Soon there were no more sunflower stars to be found. Other species followed. Gavenus returned to the sea star plots naturalists had been surveying since 2014, recording melting sea stars, and then almost no sea stars at all.

Dismembered arms from a rainbow star that succumbed to wasting. (Ground Truth Trekking photo)
Dismembered arms from a rainbow star that succumbed to wasting. (Ground Truth Trekking photo)

She reported dead sea stars to researchers in California, as she’d reported dead seabirds to researchers in Washington state. “Sometimes this summer, it felt like I was doing nothing but counting dead animals.”

Temperatures spiked this summer in Kachemak Bay at around 57 degrees, several degrees higher than the usual summer peak and warmer than any summer since 2005. In the middle of August, the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve warned of toxic mussels in the Homer harbor, just when the sea stars were beginning to succumb. Wasting had been present here at a low level for years. Perhaps higher temperatures finally caused it to break into a full-scale plague.

It’s a simple story — but it’s too simple. Farther south, the sea stars’ pandemic began before the anomalously warm “Blob” of water appeared in the Gulf of Alaska, spreading across places with vastly different environmental conditions, linked to temperature in some places but not others.

The bodies of these dying stars teem with a virus called SSaDV (sea star-associated densovirus), but the healthy stars have it too, as do museum-preserved stars from as far back as 1942. None of the scientists I spoke to could explain what sparked the current plague, which broke out in the summer of 2013, leaping up and down the coast from Washington to California to Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska.

“It’s probably a pathogen plus environmental factors,” said Melissa Miner, a researcher with University of California, Santa Cruz who’s been tracking the outbreak for years. “Some people are looking at ocean acidification as well.”

Aquariums signal problems

In some places, the first people to notice sea star wasting were workers in aquariums, where stars in kiddie touch tanks melted away, infected by the filtered, pumped-in ocean. Water is a sea star’s blood. It enters through a pore on the top of the animal, and moves through a series of canals, operating the thousands of tiny tube feet through a system of hydraulics.

The same water soon becomes the blood of its neighbor. As land creatures, we live in our protective bags of skin. But in the ocean, currents sweep up pathogens and toxins, plankton and larvae, connecting distant places and creatures.

The vast majority of die-offs are like the ones here — unstudied, uncounted or reported only in newspapers. Still, scientists tracking the largest mass mortality events have found that the ones they can count are becoming larger — killing more birds, fish and marine invertebrates. Fewer die-offs are caused by cold stress, while more are now caused by harmful algal blooms, by disease or by several simultaneous factors.

Sea stars are brainless, heartless and inedible. They might still be important. Decades ago, scientists removing ochre stars from the beach watched mussels grow over the rocks, and invented the concept of a “keystone species.” The loss of sea stars may cascade through the entire intertidal ecosystem. Or juveniles may carpet the rocks, quickly growing to replace what was lost. Miner has seen evidence of both futures in her long-term monitoring sites — beaches with babies, beaches empty.

Blood star (Henricia leviscula) on a rock (Ground Truth Trekking photo)
Blood star (Henricia leviscula) on a rock (Ground Truth Trekking photo)

We don’t know what will happen with the sea stars. We don’t even know what is happening with the sea stars. The scientists I spoke to didn’t know why the Kachemak Bay sea stars died this summer — they didn’t even know it had happened. There are so few scientists in Alaska, scrabbling for funding, fighting the weather and dealing with a huge and complicated ocean. Plus, Alaska’s 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline, according to NOAA, is nearly four times more than the No. 2 state of Florida.

“The system is just really variable,” said Katrin Iken, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It’s hard to pick out a change that is different than that variability.”

Some strands braid together neatly. Last winter, tens of thousands of murres starved to death. This summer, the remaining murres abandoned their nesting colonies and failed to raise chicks.

But what about sea star viruses?

Or herring drifting into Kachemak Bay from Prince William Sound to feed humpback whales and winter kings?

Or a phytoplankton community with bigger numbers and smaller cells?

Or shifts in kelp beds?

All these braid together like my daughter’s hair after a week in the wilderness — a confusion of snarled knots and flyaway strands and tucked in bits of spruce twig.

New normal?

 We’re probably missing strands. Most of the ocean is invisible and unnoticed — built of species neither cute, iconic nor commercially harvested.

Kachemak Bay is better monitored than most. Mandy Lindberg, a biologist with NOAA, hopes that remote-sensing networks can be deployed across the state to catch some of what we’re missing: “We need instruments that send data and imagery. It’s more important now because of all these weirdnesses with the climate.” [NOAA wants to use microwave radiation sensors to “monitor” the situation? This will cause further harm to this very fragile environment.]

“Mother Nature is giving us this huge natural experiment,” Holderied said. “The conditions we’ve been seeing, we’ve never seen them before. They’re three or four standard deviations above the normal — but by 2046, this will be normal.”

This summer, I walked the beaches with a little yellow notebook in my pocket. It’s full now, scribbled with geeky little lists of each species I found at low tide — sometimes 70 in a single morning. They were records of new things I learned. Perhaps they’re also records of things that will never be the same. I used those lists when I uploaded my observations to the citizen-science site tracking sea star wasting. My pin marks showed up on the map. They made me feel important. It was unnerving, exciting and sad all at the same time.

Change is fascinating.

In October, my son and I walked down the beaches of Jakolof Bay, hands tucked into our pockets to protect against the frost. The crabs hunched motionless in the cold, and the corpses of birds and sea stars had been long since swept away. I spotted a glimpse of pink and plunged my arm into the water to pull up a single rainbow star, the only one I’d seen in a month. Three of its five arms were tiny regenerating stubs. We speculated about its brush with death, and whether this single survivor could become the grandmother to future generations. Its tube feet reached out to grip the rock. I made a mark in my notebook, and then put it back — extra carefully.

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. She’s the author of “A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski,” the children’s book “My Coyote Nose and Ptarmigan Toes” and “Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska.” Her next book, “Mud Flats and Fish Camps: 800 Miles around Alaska’s Cook Inlet,” is due out in spring 2017. You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.

https://www.adn.com/alaska-life/we-alaskans/2016/11/13/kachemak-bay-has-witnessed-massive-die-offs-of-sea-stars-and-other-species-whats-going-on/

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As Pacific sardine collapse worsens, scientists worry about ecosystem ripple

Researchers can’t tell exactly what’s driving the die-off…”Those ocean life patterns are just not working the way they have in the past,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From the Oregonian

By Kelly House | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
March 10, 2016

Charts on website

Nearly a year into a West Coast sardine fishing ban enacted to protect the collapsing population, the fish formerly worth more than $8 million to Oregon’s economy have shown no signs of a comeback.

New federal research indicates numbers of the small, silvery, schooling fish have plummeted further than before the fishing moratorium, dashing any hope of lifting it in 2016.

With the current sardine population hovering at 7 percent of its 2007 peak, fishermen now say they expect to wait a decade or more to revive the fishery.

“I don’t want to take a pessimistic view, but I would think we’ll be shut down until 2030,” said Ryan Kapp, a Bellingham fisherman who advises the Pacific Fishery Management Council on sardines and other fish.

Sardines aren’t struggling in isolation. Other fish near the bottom of the marine food web, such as anchovies and herring, are also down. The shortage of sustenance is rippling upward to create crises for predator species from seals to seabirds.

Researchers can’t tell exactly what’s driving the die-off, nor how long it will last. Some say the crash can be attributed to cyclical boom-and-bust population dynamics sardines have always exhibited.

Others argue overfishing played a role, driving sardine populations down too far and too fast to blame it on a natural population flux.

Then there’s the unavoidable presence of the “warm blob,” a lingering mass of overheated water that for more than two years has wreaked havoc on sea life off the Pacific coast.

Those ocean life patterns are just not working the way they have in the past,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that tracks sardine numbers. “There’s a feeling that a lot of this is environmentally-driven.”

RIPPLES IN THE FOOD CHAIN

The Pacific fishery council’s rules call for a fishery shutdown if the total weight of adult sardines falls below 150,000 metric tons. When the population fell below that threshold last spring, council members scrambled to enact a midseason shutdown.

Federal scientists last month estimated sardine biomass has dropped below 65,000 tons this year.

Even with fishing pressures lifted, sardines could struggle to bounce back in an ocean devoid of their main food source. The lipid-rich coldwater plankton that sardines like to eat have become scarcer in West Coast waters, replaced by tropical species with less appeal to the region’s predators. Scientists suspect the warm blob is causing the plankton shift.

Without that food source, “the whole system can suffer,” said Kerry Griffin, who manages sardines for the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The end result is ominous for more than just fishermen. Oily sardines are a key food source for larger ocean-going animals. As that option becomes scarce, predators switch to less-nutritious food options and can end up starving.

Scientists believe that chain reaction is already playing out in a big way. A group of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers last week released a study linking the sardine collapse to the surge in starving sea lion pups washing ashore along the California coast. The scientists who authored the study say they expect the mass starvation that stranded 3,000 pups last year to continue as long as forage fish numbers remain low.

Similar phenomena have been observed among other species that target small schooling fish for food. Brown pelicans are failing to breed, dead Guadalupe fur seals are washing ashore in California, undersize salmon are returning to Canadian spawning grounds and seabirds are washing ashore weakened or dead on the Oregon coast.

OVERFISHING?

Environmentalists for years warned that a sardine collapse was imminent. Now they have begun lobbying to get more conservative harvest policies in place before the fishery reopens.

Research shows that overfishing intensifies the cyclical downturns of sardines and other small fish, and ocean conservation groups argue current West Coast standards are too permissive to prevent overfishing.

Ben Enticknap, a Portland-based campaign manager for the international conservation group Oceana, said the group is pushing the council to adopt new standards that would trigger a fishing ban once the sardine stock drops below 640,000 metric tons. That trigger point is more than four times higher than the current level.

The group is also lobbying for a rule to prohibit fishermen from hauling in more than 15 percent of the adult population in a given season. In the final years of harvest before last year’s shutdown, fishermen caught as much as 28 percent of the adult sardines in the water.

“Fundamental flaws in management have to be fixed, or this crash will be repeated in the future,” Enticknap said.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Although the overall results of this year’s sardine count were discouraging, scientists say there’s a glimmer of hope.

Several years of poor reproduction helped drive down the sardine population. In their latest trawl, scientists saw evidence that 2015 was a good spawning year.

It’s too soon to tell whether the reproductive success signals a turning point.

“There are some potentially positive signs there,” Milstein said, but in order to boost population counts, “the young need to survive long enough to make it into the mature population.”

–Kelly House

khouse@oregonian.com
503-221-8178
@Kelly_M_House

http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/03/as_pacific_sardine_collapse_wo.html

Posted under Fair Use Rules.