Pacific salmon may be dying from leukemia-type virus

April 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Global Warming

In Canada’s Fraser River, a mysterious illness has killed millions of Pacific salmon, and scientists have a new hypothesis about why: The wild salmon are suffering from viral infections similar to those linked to some forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

For 60 years before the early 1990s, an average of nearly 8 million wild salmon returned from the Pacific Ocean to the Fraser River each year to spawn.

Now the salmon industry is in a state of collapse, with mortality rates ranging from 40 percent to 95 percent.

The salmon run has been highly variable: The worst year came in 2009, with 1.5 million salmon, followed by the best year in 2010, with 30 million salmon. But the overall trend is downward.

Losses were particularly high in elevated river temperatures; warmer water makes it more difficult to deliver oxygen to the tissues of salmon.

Seven of the last 10 summers have been the hottest on record for the Fraser River. But experts say it’s too soon to pin the blame on global warming.

“Clearly, a warming climate is going to produce some new stresses for Pacific salmon,” said Daniel Schindler, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Some of those stresses will certainly be expressed through increased susceptibility to disease, including something like this.”

But he added: “The reality is we have very poor understanding of how climate and disease dynamics interact with each other in salmon. We know they’re going to be important, but we can’t say a lot in detail.”

Two years ago, Canada’s prime minister ordered a judicial inquiry – known as the Cohen Commission – to investigate the salmon deaths, with a final report due by June 2012.

Scott Hinch, an investigator at the University of British Columbia’s Pacific salmon ecology and conservation lab and a co-author of a study on the salmon that was published in the journal Science, testified before the panel last month. He told it that the virus could be the biggest factor that’s driving the collapse.

The study raises “a big red flag,” providing scientists with a possible new explanation, said Brian Riddle, the president and chief executive officer of the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The critical thing is that for years, people have wondered about the rate of decline and how it can be pretty consistent across most populations in the Fraser,” he said. “This provides a viable reason now. We’re discovering something new. There’s still a lot unknown. We don’t understand the origin of the virus. We don’t understand how it functions.”

He said much more study was needed.

“If this really is a virus and it’s something we don’t understand, then we don’t know how to treat it or control for it,” Riddle said. “So this is something that could linger with us for a long time, and possibly until the animal learns how to deal with it. That will only happen through natural selection-type processes.”

As part of Hinch’s study, salmon were caught, tagged and implanted with radio transmitters and their blood, gill, muscle and fin tissues were biopsied. Scientists then tracked them and discovered that many were stressed and sick before they reached their spawning grounds.

According to the study, ocean-tagged salmon that had the gene signature associated with the viral infection were 13.5 times more likely to die before spawning.

Hinch said the scientists thought that the salmon became infected at sea, before making their runs upriver. He likened it to “dead fish swimming.”

If researchers can confirm the findings that a virus related to leukemia is responsible, “it would be quite novel,” said Hinch.

While there’s no similar research taking place in the United States, Schindler of the University of Washington said there was no reason not to assume that salmon in the nearby Columbia River in Washington state would be suffering, as well.

Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said other issues were at play and that “a cascade of interrelated factors,” not just a virus, could be causing the salmon deaths.

“There are fundamental habitat issues that weaken the salmon when they have too little water in the river or when the water is poor quality, when the population is truncated because of dams and there’s less biological diversity,” he said. “All of those are risk factors for any number of diseases. … It’s sort of like the blind man and the elephant. Everybody thinks that what they’ve got in front of them is the elephant. The reality is that it’s a whole ecosystem.”

He added: “If this is a virus, it’s an endemic virus and it’s been out there for thousands of years. The question is, if it’s attacking fish now, why now?”

Warmer oceans taking toll on world’s coral reefs

February 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Global warming took a toll on coral reefs in 2010, endangering one of the world’s key ecosystems that benefit people in countless ways.

Coral reefs are habitat for almost 100,000 known marine species, including about 40 percent of all fish species. They feed millions of people, protect coasts by absorbing wave energy, and shelter creatures that could become sources of medicine for treating cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite data show that 2010, the warmest on record, was hard on corals. Warmer than normal temperatures stressed tropical corals, causing them to bleach – expelling the algae that live in their tissue, giving them color and nourishment.

Some 75 percent of the world’s reefs are threatened by climate change, overfishing and pollution, according to a new assessment from the World Resources Institute and other conservation organizations. The number increased dramatically from the group’s last assessment in 1998.

“It will take a Herculean effort to reverse the current trajectory and leave healthy ocean ecosystems to our children and grandchildren,” said Jane Lubchenco, the marine scientist who heads NOAA. “How the world rises to this challenge is a reflection of our commitment to one another and to the natural world that gives us sustenance, wisdom and a reflection of our souls.”

Coral reefs cover less than a tenth of 1 percent of the oceans’ acreage, but that’s still about 100,000 square miles. Scientists who dive to study reefs can’t cover them all, so they’re turning increasingly for help from satellites.

NOAA’s satellite data on ocean heat showed that bleaching is occurring in all regions and becoming more frequent. Extreme bleaching kills corals because they can’t survive without the nourishment the algae provide. Less intense bleaching can weaken corals, reduce their growth and reproductive ability, and make them more vulnerable to disease.

Mark Eakin, a University of Miami-trained oceanographer who coordinates NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch satellite program, said that 2010 was only the second time on record that bleaching occurred globally.

The first global bleaching, from 1997 to 1999, came when an exceedingly strong El Nino – a periodic warming of ocean surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific – was followed by an especially strong version of its opposite counterpart, La Nina. About 15 percent of the world’s corals died then.

“Fast forward to 2010,” Eakin said. This time, El Nino and the La Nina that followed weren’t nearly as strong.

“The problem that we’re seeing is, as the oceans keep warming on a year-to-year basis, it doesn’t take as big or as unusual conditions to result in this sort of event.”

The bleaching from last year in many places was the worst since 1998. In the warmest months, bleaching hit the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the southern Caribbean.

The Florida Keys and the northern part of the Caribbean, where unprecedented bleaching occurred in 2005, were spared last year because tropical storms cooled the waters.

Coral reefs are more diverse in life forms than even rain forests. The most abundant life is in the Coral Triangle, from the Philippines down to Indonesia and across to Papua New Guinea.

“I’ve been diving in some places there where I see more species on any given reef than we have in all of the Caribbean,” Eakin said.

Dead zones in ocean threaten fish

January 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With the New Year comes new challenges to fish in our world’s oceans and one of the major concerns is the expansion of hypoxic zones. That’s the scientific name but more recreational anglers are becoming aware of them as “dead zones.”

They are areas in the oceans with low or non-existent oxygen levels which, according to a recently released research study by scientists and fish management experts, are increasing in size while decreasing the habitats of billfish and tuna. In scientific circles this phenomena is called “habitat compression.”

Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation (TBF) said scientists outfitted 79 sailfish and blue marlin in two strategic areas of the Atlantic with pop-off archival satellite tags which monitored their horizontal and vertical movement patterns.

“Billfish favor abundant habitats of oxygen-rich waters closer to the surface while avoiding waters low in oxygen,” Peel said. The study, composed of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and TBF, found a massive expanding low oxygen zone in the Atlantic Ocean is encroaching upon the fish forcing them into shallower waters where they are more likely to be caught. The research waters included areas off south Florida and the Caribbean (western North Atlantic); and off the coast of West Africa (the eastern tropical Atlantic).

Hypoxic zones occur naturally in areas of the world’s tropical and equatorial seas because of ongoing weather patterns, oceanographic and biological processes. In the current cycle of climate change and accelerated global warming, hypoxic areas are expanding and shoaling closer to the sea surface, and may continue to expand as sea temperatures rise.

“The zone off West Africa,” said Dr. Eric D. Prince, NOAA Fisheries Service research biologist, “encompasses virtually all the equatorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, is roughly the size of the continental United States and is growing. With the current cycle of climate change and accelerated global warming we expect the size of this zone to increase, further reducing the available habitat for these fishes.”

Oil platform could put critically endangered whales at risk

January 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Oil platform could put critically endangered whales at risk

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company already has two platforms in the area and have previously said that their drilling technology meant that they would not need a third. An official Sakhalin Energy document also acknowledges that having two rather than three platforms “significantly reduces the potential for environmental impact”.

The company plans to conduct a seismic survey which involves shooting loud pulses of noise into the ocean floor later this year to determine where to begin platform construction.

Three seismic surveys conducted around the whale feeding habitat last summer caused severe pressure on the animals as the noise from the surveys can be devastating for species that rely on sound to navigate, communicate and find their food.

Grey whales occur on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. However IUCN classes the critically endangered Western population as separate from the Eastern population, as genetic studies indicate that the two populations probably do not mix.

Only around 130 whales of the critically endangered Western population exist today.

The construction and operation of an additional off-shore platform could have a number of negative effects on the whales, including disrupting feeding behaviours and increasing the chance of fatal ship strikes.

Aleksey Knizhnikov, Oil Gas Environmental Policy Officer for WWF-Russia says on the WWF website: “Just around 30 female western Grey whales of breeding age remain the population is already on the brink of disappearing forever. The loss of even a few breeding females could mean the end for the population.”

During the feeding season the whales must eat enough to maintain themselves for the migration to their breeding grounds. Their primary feeding area, near the proposed platform, is also one of the only places where mother whales can teach their calves to feed on the sea bed.

“We are astonished by the announcement from Sakhalin Energy that it intends to build a third platform,” said Wendy Elliott, Species Programme Manager, WWF-International.

Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment reiterates:”We still do not know how badly the whales were affected by major seismic activity last summer and will not know until the whales return to their feeding grounds again this year and scientists can determine if any are malnourished. It is totally inappropriate for Sakhalin Energy to plan another seismic survey in 2011 before we have the opportunity to examine the health of the animals.”

California’s Marine Life Gets New Protections

January 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Californias marine habitats have received a big boost from new regulations which have banned or restricted fishing across a range of about 350 square miles. The new regulations come ten years after the creation of the California Marine Life Protection Act. This law was passed because of the degradation of various marine habitats, to the point where life might not have been sustainable in those habitats. What follows is an interview about the new conservation regulations with Zack Bradford, an ocean policy analyst with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The California Fish and Game Commission recently restricted fishing in 49 areas of Californias coastal waters. Why did they do this?

The Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that have now been designated along the Central Coast, North Central Coast and South Coast regions of California are not a blanket ban on fishing; only some of these MPAs are fully-protected marine reserves where fishing is prohibited. These MPAs are designated depending on the degree of restrictions as either State Marine Reserves (SMRs), which prohibit commercial and recreational fishing; State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCAs), which generally allow some form of commercial or recreational take; State Marine Parks (SMPs), which may allow recreational fishing but generally do not permit commercial fishing; and State Marine Recreational Management Areas (SMRMAs), which may limit or restrict take of marine resources.

The MPAs along Californias coast were created in order to protect Californias living marine resources its fish, shellfish, kelp, and other marine life in perpetuity, not only to allow the recovery of certain fish populations, but to also protect entire ecosystems for future generations of Californians.

What species live in these now protected areas, and why do they need protection?

The number of species living in these protected areas is almost too many to count. But its not the individual species that were the driver for creating these MPAs; these MPAs were designed to protect the entire ecosystem. Thats why these areas restrict take of all marine life, not just certain species. That being said, there are a number of fish species in California, most notably many species of rockfish, that have been depleted over the years, and which will benefit from these protected areas. Setting aside areas where these fish are safe from fishing will allow populations to rebound as they will allow fish to get older and larger, and thus produce more young young which will spread to areas outside the reserves.

What are some of the worst threats to Californias marine life?

The threats facing our ocean today are almost too many to count; they include things like overfishing, coastal development, pollution, habitat damage, and of course climate change. Of these, climate change may prove to be the worst threat to Californias coastal waters and oceans around the world.

How significant is the ban, and how will it be enforced?

For the South Coast Study Region, the Marine Protected Areas cover approximately 8 percent of the regions state waters (not including the MPAs around the Channel Islands with those MPAs the total percentage is 15 percent). About 4.9 percent of state waters in the region are now no-take areas (11.7 percent with the Channel Islands MPAs). Compliance with the restrictions of each MPA will be enforced by the California Department of Fish and Game.

Sustainability of Antarctic toothfish fishery, legitimacy of Marine Stewardship Council Called into Question

January 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

Sustainability of Antarctic toothfish fishery, legitimacy of Marine Stewardship Council called into question

By Morgan Erickson-Davis and Jeremy Hance,

January 05, 2011

Patagonian toothfish, also called Chilean sea bass. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

In November of 2010, the Antarctic toothfish fishery was deemed sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. This certification goes against the advice of many marine scientists who claim that insufficient research has been done to determine the full impact of commercial fishing on this enigmatic species.

Topping out at 300lbs, the Antarctic toothfish is one of the biggest fish in the Southern Ocean. With its ability to produce an antifreeze glycoprotein and a heart that beats just once every six seconds, it is superbly adapted to its Southern Ocean habitat. Unfortunately, it’s also delicious.

Referred to as “white gold” by fishermen, Antarctic toothfish fetches upwards of $35 per pound on the U.S. market where it’s often called “Chilean sea bass”, even though it’s not at all related to sea bass and lives nowhere near Chile. However, even its exorbitant price can’t make up for the costs incurred by fishing vessels when they venture out into the Ross Sea, the habitat of the Antarctic toothfish and one of the few marine safehouses remaining in the world today. Unpredictable sea ice, turbulent waters, and the vast distance from port make the Antarctic toothfishery financially unviable. Yet there is a safety net for the Antarctic toothfish fishery, allowing them to supply “Chilean sea bass” for people wealthy enough to afford it and employ fishermen at “slave wages” in extremely hazardous working conditions – a sustainability certificate from the Marine Stewardship Council which will let the fishery hike up prices.

“Management of this fishery follows precautionary and ecosystem-based principles. Strict harvest control rules, annual stock assessments, mandatory observation of fishing activities and controls on gear to avoid by-catch of seabirds are just some of the practical outcomes of that approach, recognized and rewarded by this certification.” said Chris Ninnes, MSC Deputy Chief Executive, in a November statement congratulating the Antarctic toothfish fishery on its certification.

Antarctic toothfish. Courtesy of NOAA

The certification will allow a harvest of 3000 tons of toothfish per year, with a target reduction of 50 percent of total regional spawning biomass. While MSC maintains that these numbers are obtained through rigorous population analysis, many marine scientists say that they have no real basis.

“We actually know very little about the ecology of Antarctic toothfish, despite MSCs reasoning otherwise.” David Ainley, a marine ecologist who conducts research in the Antarctic, told “Because of the challenges of conducting science in the ice-choked Ross Sea, we know only vaguely where or when these fish spawn (sometime in winter, and maybe around the sea mounts well north of the Ross Sea), have no idea about natural mortality, a cursory idea of what predators eat them at the early stages, etc. We do know, though, that larger fish are important to sperm whales, killer whales and seals.”

“The lack of insight about what is really going on is the most true for the Antarctic toothfish, which lives in a really harsh area making fishery science difficult at best, and in which all model inputs are educated guesses, i.e. drawn from inputs for fish species elsewhere in other systems. As the head of fishery science for NZs NIWA (John McCoy) recently said in a public speech, fishery science is based on guesses and more and more these days more fish species become fished with fewer and fewer data.”

Ainley explains that the management of many fisheries operate on the belief that removing large fish is good for a population because it encourages the growth of smaller fish, when actually it’s the largest, oldest females that produce the most eggs. This is especially true for long-lived species like the Antarctic toothfish which doesn’t spawn until 16 and can live 50 years. Even agencies which know better may not enforce a policy requiring the release of large fish. In the tuna industry, meat quality significantly increases with size, giving a fish over 100lbs a possibly market value in the many thousands of dollars. Since many captains and crew members work on commission, it would be difficult, perhaps even dangerous, to enforce the release of fish which could make or break a fishing trip.

As Ainley sees it, it’s all about the money.

“The Ross Sea toothfish longline certification cost the industry (paid by the NZ government) $77,000 for the certification.” he says, “The consulting firms that do the certifications live on these fees; there is no way that theyll be turning anyone down and thus lose market share to other consulting firms.”

In addition to its ecological impact, the toothfish industry threatens the lives of many fishermen who brave the huge swells and unpredictable weather of the Southern Ocean.

In December, 22 people were killed when the South Korean trawler Insung No. 1 sank in New Zealand waters while pursuing the Antarctic toothfish. The men were paid very little, $200 to $1030 for up to three months of intense, physical labor aboard the vessel.

The pursuit of the Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea can be even more hazardous.

“These are dangerous, ice-covered seas 2500km from nearest port.” says Ainley, ” In the past few years theres been at least one vessel sinking (S Korea), two having to return to port prematurely owing to cracked hulls or other difficulty (NZ), and another that required the US Air Force to airlift, and drop, engine parts for a disabled vessel (UK).”

Many scientists and conservation organizations say that in order to stop unsustainable fishing, consumer habits need to be changed.

“I would recommend that consumers, if they want to make ecologically wise choices, go by the recommendations of Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Marine Aquarium. Those people have no financial interests at stake in what they recommend and are keenly interested in protecting the oceans, and the ecofriendly consumers.”

Commission approves creation of ocean reserves, fishing limits

December 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

At the end of a long process called momentous, unprecedented and tortuous, a state commission Wednesday narrowly approved the creation of ocean habitat reserves where fishing will be limited, including nearly 20 square miles off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The Fish and Game Commission voted 3-2 to approve 36 marine protected areas in coastal waters along a region that stretches from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexico border.

The closures are expected to go into effect the middle of next year.

“This is truly a historic day for California,” said Mark Gold, president of the Santa Monica-based advocacy group Heal the Bay.

The commission vote, which came after five hours of public comment and debate at a Santa Barbara meeting attended by hundreds, finalized a plan that has been called a compromise between fishing and environmental interests.

“The best negotiation is where neither party comes away happy, and that is the proposal you have before you today,” Stefanie Sekich of the Surfrider Foundation told the commission.

The plan – labeled the “integrated preferred alternative” because it combined elements of three plans drafted over dozens of meetings – limits or halts fishing in about 16.5 percent of the so-called South Coast region.

The vote brings to a conclusion a process that began in summer of 2008 to implement the 11-year-old Marine Life Protection Act, or MLPA, which calls for the creation of a

science-based, statewide network of ocean preserves. The goal is to protect marine ecosystems and sustain and rebuild fish stocks.

Meetings with more than 60 stakeholders sometimes pitted environmentalists who wanted strong protections for the best habitat against fisherman who often wanted to maintain access to those same productive waters. The stakeholders drew and re-drew the boundaries of the proposed reserves, sometimes arguing over just a few hundred feet of beachfront.


California is the third of five regions along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline that have undergone the process. Still awaiting completion are the North Coast and San Francisco Bay regions.

The most densely populated and heavily used of the five regions, Southern California has proved especially contentious for state officials overseeing the MLPA initiative, which was funded largely by private foundations.

Locally, the plan protects about 15 square miles of ocean southwest of Point Vicente, where fishing will be completely prohibited.

In an adjacent conservation area of about 5 square miles at Abalone Cove, “take” of marine life will be allowed by only some fishing methods. The Abalone Cove conservation area would replace a much smaller, existing state marine park.

The vote leaves open to fishing some of the most pristine and bounteous waters in Southern California – the Rocky Point area of the northern Palos Verdes Peninsula, which was the subject of a passionate tug-of-war won between local fishermen and environmental groups.

Featuring cold, deep canyons, kelp forests and a productive fish nursery, Rocky Point is popular with sportfishing boats coming from the Redondo Beach harbor and with local recreational fishermen.

The plan before the commission omitted Rocky Point after the Blue Ribbon Task Force – the initial gatekeeper for this process – instead chose to give greater protection to Point Dume in Malibu. The trade-off was made because of concern about the economic impact on local fishing businesses.

Multiple reserves and conservation areas on Catalina Island were also approved, as were fishing closures in Santa Barbara County, Laguna Beach and the San Diego area.

Overall, many fishermen remained staunchly opposed to the initiative, which they said was flawed from the start. Some were critical both of the science that was used to craft the protected-area boundaries and of peer-reviewed studies that have shown the efficacy of closures in improving fish stocks.

“Proponents of the MLPA will have you believe that California marine resources are in dire straits. … This is simply untrue,” said George Osborn, who was representing the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans, a fishing group formed to respond to the process. “There is not one marine fish stock experiencing overfishing in California’s waters.”

Osborn and attorneys representing the fishing group said the process had not been transparent or public enough. They referred to documents – obtained through a public records lawsuit – that they said showed members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force had held private meetings.

Commissioner Richard Rogers responded later to the skepticism about the science by saying that the debate should have long since moved on. As for the possibility of a legal challenge, he was similarly defiant.

“In my world, you hear something like that and the first thing that comes to mind is ‘bring it,'” Rogers said.

Rogers was joined by Commissioners Michael Sutton and Jack Baylis, a former Heal the Bay board member, in supporting the marine protected areas. The majority vote was to approve an environmental review of the plan, as well as new regulatory language that state wardens will enforce.

Sutton, a staunch supporter of the MLPA, compared the new marine reserves to existing terrestrial parks that hunters have supported.

“You don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to see that if we protect essential habitat, wildlife populations tend to do pretty well,” Sutton said.

Commissioners Jim Kellogg and Dan Richards opposed the plan. Both cited the financial impacts to fishing businesses, particularly during troubled economic times, as well as the lack of state funds to implement marine protected areas.

Find out more

Two state marine conservation areas have been approved for local waters. A complete map of the closures is at

In the 15.1-square-mile Point Vicente area, no fishing will be permitted.

In the neighboring 4.8-square-mile Abalone Cove area, some fishing will be allowed: recreational take of pelagic finfish, white seabass by spearfishing only, and market squid by hand-held dip net; and commercial take of coastal pelagic species and Pacific bonito by round haul net, and swordfish by harpoon.