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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...