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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: