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Shifting Waters: Warmer Ocean, less food

By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
06/08/15 -- On World Oceans Day today, we're reflecting on the news that the California Current Ecosystem is changing. In this important marine environment off the West Coast, wind and water combine to fuel the production of rich wildlife diversity and bountiful fisheries (see Wind-powered). However, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently issued a rather grim diagnosis in their 2015 State of the California Current Report. The report concludes that the climate on the West Coast is becoming warmer, which is leading to less productivity of nutrients and phytoplankton in the Pacific Ocean. This decreased productivity will have major impacts on the base of marine food web, which will be felt all the way to the marketplace, and affect everything from sea lions to salmon.

Sea Lion pup photo by FISHBIO
Sea Lion pup, photo by FISHBIO

The report prepared by NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Southwest Fisheries Science Center is a product of NOAA's Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Program, which tracks trends across seven major ecosystems in the United States. The scientists note that in prior years, the California Current Ecosystem has been highly productive, with strong upwelling bringing nutrient-rich, cold waters from ocean depths to the surface. These nutrients fuel the growth of copepods, which are an important food source for many fish species, including salmon and juvenile rockfish. But "blobs" of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska and off the coast of Southern California expanded in early 2015, eventually joining together to cover the vast majority of the West Coast. The expanding blobs were accompanied by incoming warm waters from the south, which brought along copepods normally limited to subtropical regions. These subtropical copepods are not as energy-dense as the cold-water copepods that typically inhabit West Coast waters, and as a poorer food source they are often linked to lower productivity and weaker returns of salmon. The declining biomass of energy-rich copepods caused by warm waters and weakened upwelling is one of the report's many highlights.

Large die-offs of top predators are another indicator of changing ocean conditions highlighted in the report. Scientists believe the unusually high mortality of California sea lion pups in 2013 is linked to changing ocean productivity. Sea lion survival appeared to increase in 2014, but the scientists note that the average weight of the pups has decreased again this year, which may indicate the start of another unusual mortality event. Indeed, rescue organizations in Southern California have reported increasingly high numbers of starving pups. Seabirds are also already feeling the effects of a changing food web. The report mentions that the biomass of seabirds from 2009-2013 was stable or increasing, but since early 2015, Cassin's auklets have experienced mass mortality due to starvation. These changing ocean conditions are also particularly worrisome for salmon, which are already facing tough conditions in their freshwater habitats due to the California drought. Juvenile salmon entering an ocean with less food will face additional challenges for survival, which could result in poor salmon returns in future years.

The report also discusses some anticipated impacts to the West Coast commercial fishing fleet. While the fleet continues to have high landings in 2015, the fisheries are becoming much more specialized by focusing on a smaller range of species. This makes the fleet less stable and more susceptible to high losses if particular fisheries experience a bad year. 2015 is already one of the warmest years on record, and scientists have not witnessed a climatic situation like this one before. To make matters worse, El Niño conditions may prolong or even intensify these warm ocean conditions. Researchers will continue tracking marine species and their responses to the changing ocean state while also working to integrate information from the report into the future management of California's marine resources. There could be many challenges ahead to cope with this potential "new normal" in our local ocean waters.

FISHBIO is a dedicated group of research scientists, engineers, and technicians that specialize in counting, tracking, and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world. An expert staff, technical capacity, and state-of-the-art equipment make FISHBIO a trailblazer in aquatic research. For more information, please visit FISHBIO.com.

Fishing Reports

A Hot Summer’s Day on Chico Creek
A Hot Summer's Day on Chico Creek, Steven T. Callan
On Patrol by Steven T. Callan
07/25/16 -- I’ve been exploring Northern California’s streams -- above and below the surface -- for most of my life. One of my most memorable adventures took place on a hot summer’s day in 1964, not long after my sixteenth...Full Story
Brownie’s Choice
Art work by Isabella Langaman
By Don Webster
Disregard the story’s title. I don’t really have a “first” name. If I did, it would probably be something like Leviathan or Behemoth or maybe Lunker. Officially, I’m a trout. A brown trout. A giant, brown trout. Possibly the biggest, fattest...Full Story
Keddie Ridge
Scouting Deerheart Lake, photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil “Flip” Akers
11/14/15 -- Adjacent to both Lake Almanor and Mountain Meadows, between the towns of Westwood and Greenville, is a seemingly forgotten piece of backcountry; Keddie Ridge – aka Ridge World – where ancient rocks... Full Story
Let’s check out the Upper Sac
Lake Siskiyou with Mt. Shasta standing sentinel. photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil "Flip" Akers
09/06/15 -- The Upper Sacramento River – The Upper Sac – begins at Lake Siskiyou’s Box Canyon Dam and continues ~37 miles downstream to Lake Shasta. It is a classic freestone river born from the Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy... Full Story
How to make Tuscan Tuna Salad with Fennel By Frank Galusha
05/04/15 -- OK, you went ocean fishing. If your fish is fresh or if you have processed, vacuum packed and frozen your catch properly, there are many ways to enhance your meals. Almost everything taken from the ocean is not... Full Story
Climbing Terms for the Fisherman
Trailhead Tales by Jim Broshears
10/14/14 -- For those of us who prefer to fish the rugged and remote streams and rivers for the elusive wild trout, rock climbing is a skill that is required to reach the special places where catching the big one is a “sure thing.” The skills...Full Story
German brown trout afternoon in Modoc
german brown trout in Modoc creek. MyOutdoorBuddy.com
By Lea Huetteman
09/04/14 -- Catching a German Brown Trout from the creeks in Modoc County is a fine way to spend an afternoon. There are many creeks in this part of California that drain the Warner Mountains. Stream trout fishing in this region opens...Full Story
Throw the kitchen sink at them
Indian Paintbrush is a favorite wildflower that carpets wilderness landscapes. Phil Flip Akers, myoutdoorbuddy.com
Article and photos by Phil Akers
08/20/14 -- Our wilderness areas are special, where Mother Nature is landlord and natural forces operate freely. Within the wilderness you will find no roads, shelters, picnic tables, toilets, or other conveniences. You enter at...Full Story
Humboldt Bay: Busy port, excellent fishery
Woodley Island Marina, Humboldt Bay, Eureka, California
03/06/04 -- Humboldt Bay, a busy commercial harbor and home port to many charter and private offshore fishing boats, is also popular with shore-based anglers and small boaters seeking bottomfish, sharks, crabs and clams...Full Story
Pulled into the pipes: Green Sturgeon
green sturgeon
By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
03/04/14 -- [Posted with permission of FISHBIO] Living in the Sacramento River can be a risky business for juvenile green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris). The young fish must swim through a gauntlet of water... Full Story
Not Just Any Fish
California Golden Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
By Phil "Flip" Akers
02/14/13 -- Trout have inhabited California waters from the Sierra Nevada and Warner Mountains to the Pacific Ocean since prehistoric times. However, most of the trout caught by anglers are either hatchery raised fish...Full Story

 

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