A cause for concern: state of the Pacific Ocean

This past month CPAWS-BC attended DFO’s State of the Pacific Ocean Meeting where scientists presented their latest research, discussed pressing issues, and painted a picture of current conditions in our ocean. The amount of excellent research currently being done by scientists across the coast is positive and beneficial for future science-based conservation practices. However, data presented at the meeting shows more and more that ocean conditions are changing - a trend that is becoming increasingly worrisome. Other global research has shown that rising ocean temperatures have been linked to mass die offs in many parts of the world. Marine animals are changing migration patterns, and increasing rates of pollution are currently threatening marine life and making certain areas inhospitable.

Rising Ocean Temperatures: Consequences of “the Blob”

Thousands of sea lions died in 2014 and 2015 in the Pacific likely due to unusually warmer waters. Unfortunately, sea lions were but one of the many species impacted. Unprecedented numbers of whales, sea otters, jellyfish, sea stars, and seabirds were found dead along the Pacific Northwest’s coast. At least a hundred thousand blue-footed Cassin’s auklets starved to death in 2015, making it one of the largest bird die-offs in US history. Although mass deaths are not unheard of in nature, these deaths all occurred within an unseasonably warm ocean.

In several years over the past decade a large amount of marine life has died in the Hood Canal, a long and deep inlet of Puget Sound, Washington. In addition to finding large quantities of dead fish on beaches, researchers also observed rockfish and wolf eels hovering in large groups near the Hood Canal’s surface, despite generally being found in deeper waters. This irregular behaviour has strengthened the link between mass die offs with lower levels of oxygen in the water: a symptom of higher ocean temperatures in general.

More recent mass die offs of animals in the Pacific Northwest are thought to be a result of “the Blob” – a wide patch of ocean water reaching depths of 1,300 feet and spanning from Mexico to Alaska. The blob first formed in 2013 and despite sticking around for two years, receded in December 2015, only to return in 2016. The blob has facilitated massive algal blooms on the Pacific coast that reduces the available oxygen, negatively impacting the ability of other marine life to survive. While the blob was due to oceanic variations, it can show us potential impacts of warming waters due to climate change.

Snowbirds no more?

Humpbacks are noted for traveling exceedingly long distances during their seasonal migration. In the past, humpbacks have traveled from American Samoa to the Antarctic Peninsula (18,840km) and are frequently seen travelling between Alaska and Hawaii (4,830km) in as little as 36 days. However, some humpbacks have stopped migrating all together, and are staying in the Northern Pacific all year round.

Scientists acknowledge that a lack of migration may be an anomaly, but the fact that female humpbacks have remained in B.C. rather than traveling to milder climates to give birth gives reason to pause. Only 8% of humpbacks found off the coast of Hawaii in 2015 were accompanied by a calf – a striking difference compared to the 33% in previous years. While warming waters have been linked to changing migration patterns for many species, scientists don’t know why this is happening yet in B.C. and what the impacts will be to humpback populations.

Pollution: pick your poison

If warming oceans weren’t troubling enough, increasing rates of noise and plastic pollution have caught scientists’ attention. All vessels emit noise that can mask communication between animals that rely on vocalization, such as whales and dolphins. However, container ships are the worst offenders, and unfortunately the number of container ships coming in and out of Vancouver has doubled between 2001 and 2012. These risks of noise pollution will increase significantly in the event coastal pipelines are approved.

Noise pollution effectively makes areas with high vessel traffic uninhabitable for certain marine mammals. Noise pollution can impact their ability to hunt and has been linked to an increasing number of whale strandings since noise pollution may dive whales towards shores as they attempt to escape the sound of boat propellers.

Fortunately, the Canadian government is attempting to minimize the impacts of noise pollution. A final plan has not been released, but could include modified shipping routes away from whale migration corridors and reducing the speed of ships, which lowers their overall volume. However, there is concern that reducing speed would just extend the amount of time ships are within a single region, potentially having a similar overall negative effect.

Unfortunately, pollution comes in many forms. Seabirds have become increasingly exposed to oil spills from vessel traffic. This is particularly salient around the Scott Islands – a popular shipping route that is home to over 1 million seabirds. Other research shows that single oil spill near the Scott Islands could wipe out 70% of the world’s Cassin’s Auklets.

The threat of pollution doesn’t stop with oil spills. Preliminary work shows scientists have found troubling levels of plastic in seabirds in BC. A recent global study estimates that 90% of seabird species were found to contain plastic and sadly, this phenomenon is not unique to seabirds. Plastic is found in all trophic levels, from plankton to the fish we eat.


Time to Act

The State of the Pacific Ocean Meeting highlighted some concerning findings, but there’s still hope. Implementing effective marine protected areas and controlling activities like industrial shipping and fishing in ecologically significant regions, like the Scott Islands, can act as a refuge for marine life and give depleting populations a chance to survive. Additionally, effective marine planning works towards ensuring sustainable oceans for future generations.

But these steps require your help.

Concerned about the state of the ocean? Send a letter explaining your concerns to your elected official today. Give them a call. Your voice makes a difference.