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West Coast ocean waters shifting to lower-productivity regime, new report finds

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West Coast waters shifting to lower-productivity regime, new report finds

Posted: 17 Mar 2015 09:27 AM PDT

Large-scale climate patterns that affect the Pacific Ocean indicate that waters off the West Coast have shifted toward warmer, less productive conditions that may affect marine species from seabirds to salmon, according to the 2015 State of the California Current Report delivered to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The report by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Southwest Fisheries Science Center assesses productivity in the California Current from Washington south to California. The report examines environmental, biological and socio-economic indicators including commercial fisheries and community health. “We are seeing unprecedented changes in the environment,” Toby Garfield, Director of the Environmental Research Division at the SWFSC, told the Council when presenting the report, citing unusually high coastal water and air temperatures over the last year. Climate and ecological indicators are “pointing toward lower primary productivity” off California, Oregon and Washington, he said. That could translate into less food for salmon and other marine species, added Chris Harvey of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. High mortality of sea lion pups in Southern California and seabirds on the Oregon and Washington coasts in recent months may be early signs of the shift. Among the highlights of the new State of the California Current Report:

  • Record-high sea surface temperatures combined with shifts in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, North Pacific Gyre Oscillation and weaker upwelling of deep, cold waters indicate declining productivity in the California Current.
  • After several productive years the biomass of tiny energy-rich organisms called copepods, which support the base of the West Coast food chain and provide important food for salmon, has declined significantly.
  • California sea lion pups and seabirds called Cassin’s auklets found dying and emaciated in large numbers in recent months may reflect the transition to less productive marine conditions.
  • Although commercial fishery landings have remained high in recent years, the fishing fleet has become more specialized in terms of targeting specific fisheries. That may expose the vessels to more fluctuations of catch and revenue if those fisheries decline.

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