Dead birds off the coast tell us what we don't know

 

Just 26 miles from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Northern California's rugged Farallon Islands are a perfect backdrop for a mystery. Home to the largest seabird colony in the continental United States with about 250,000 birds, the islands are the Manhattan of the bird world.

Yet things are far from normal in this avian city: This year, the vast majority of seabirds failed to breed or abandoned their nests. Hundreds of dead birds washed up on the California shore, and almost all of them appear to have died from starvation.

"We haven't seen this before," says Russ Bradley, a senior biologist at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a nonprofit that conducts seabird research along the California coast. "It's kind of concerning."

Scientists and fishermen from Canada’s Vancouver Island to Santa Barbara report similar findings and say that other species are struggling as well. 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. Federal scientists report that where normally they catch several hundred salmon in the spring, this year they caught eight.

We expect scientists to make sense of odd events, but they are also puzzled. Researchers are generally a calm and cool group — I have yet to meet an "ologist" who was in the high school drama club — so it makes sense that no climatologists, oceanographers or biologists have stopped forward with a definitive answer.

Here is what researchers know for sure: Winds that in normal years churn the sea, dragging cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep to the surface, were absent or weak this spring. Without such upwelling, plankton and krill, the supporters of the food web, weren't brought to the surface, and as a result, fish and birds went hungry.

Another clue may lie in new studies that indicate that the oceans are warming. A 2005 report by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration indicates that in the past 50 years, the upper 10,000 feet of the world's oceans has warmed by .037 degrees Centigrade — a huge number, considering the volume of water involved. A study produced last month by the Canadian government found that in 2004, surface temperatures off the coast of British Columbia were the warmest in 50 years.

Of course, as any mystery fan knows, the data could be a red herring in solving the puzzle of this year's strange events. Coastal upwelling zones are prone to annual temperature fluctuations, so without additional data, scientists don't know whether what happened this year is an anomaly, part of a natural cycle, or an indicator of global warming and a harbinger of more bad news to come.

This uncertainty underscores the need to conduct more long-term surveys and studies. The Point Reyes Bird Observatory in the Farallon Islands has compiled some of the oldest bird data in the country, yet it only goes back 35 years. Research needed to gather baseline data about ocean temperatures, salinity and sea levels is unsexy and repetitive. This is no mission to Mars or the stuff of campaign speeches.

Yet this is exactly the science that's critical for changes that occur on a scale of 50-to-10O years. Currently, the government provides most money for such research in four-to-five year chunks, and that's not long enough, says Jerry Melillo, president of the Ecological Society of America.

"We're asking about science that’s (up) to a century in scope, but they (politicians) are living in an environment where the next election is two years away," he says. "It's a mismatch that's really troubling." Melillo and others say we need a stable, long-term funding source that foregoes the politically charged budget appropriation process.

A 2003 Pew Oceans Commission report proposed a way to do just this, suggesting that Congress set up a trust fund for fisheries and ocean research. Money to fund the trust would come from a nominal user tax on all seafood sold in the United States.

Let's say global warming has started to run the ecological show. If so, scientists say its impacts will place a huge burden on generations to come. The least we can do is provide those who come after us with the information to make informed decisions. It may not be sexy, but then, neither are dead birds.

 

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes about agriculture and environmental issues from Portland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.