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MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

June, 2007



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Pacific Coast Fish and Birds In Trouble
By Marie Seigenthaler

Something has been amiss off the Pacific Coast since 2004. Usually at about this time of year, strong inland winds will start blowing westwards over the Pacific Ocean. As the warmer surface waters are pushed away from the coast, cool, nutritious waters from the ocean floor displace them. The effect is called upwelling.
The nutrient-rich waters are one of the main indicators for spring in our area, and the surface (euphotic) zone soon grows thick with phytoplankton and algal blooms. These microscopic plant species form the foundation for the oceanic ecosystem. Without them, the entire food chain collapses, starting with zooplankton, then small fish and sand crabs, and extrapolating to larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.

This is the third year in a row that the upwelling has been off although it happened last month (late) and was described by Bolinas fisherman Josh Churchman as huge. The late current or non-current has become a frequent enough event to warrant a name; El Nio and La Nia have been joined by a capricious trickster--El Coyote.

We have seen the effects of El Coyote in 2005 and 2006. Rockfish, once common on the California Coast, disappeared from their usual habitat. Mussels and barnacles, both filter feeders that eat by taking in water and filtering out microorganisms, have lost an alarming amount of their recruits (young). Sea birds are starving.

Scientists are not yet sure if El Coyote is another side effect of global warming or a spoke in the ocean's current cycle. Upwelling is already variable. Yes, three years in a row is unusual, but not naturally impossible. It would take years to see what causes El Coyote.

In 2005 Fisheries and Oceans Canada-the government agency that deals with Canada's marine and inland waters-released a report saying 2004's spring and summer ocean surface temperatures in Gulf of Alaska and off British Columbia were the warmest in 50 years.

The study concluded the record high temperatures were caused by abnormally warm weather in Alaska and western Canada, as well as "general warming of global lands and oceans." The annual survey of juvenile rockfish numbers was the lowest in 23 years. The upwelling didn't happen until June - of little use for krill predators in the system.

A meeting this year of Oceanographers, climatologists, and ecologists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported increasingly wild fluctuations in winds and currents appear to account for a series of ocean events including huge ocean dead zones because of depleted oxygen in seawater.

Jack Barth, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University states, "Delays in the onset of upwelling and strong late-season upwelling are consistent with regional climate change models...

If the winds are late, bringing late upwelling, the rich-nutrient water will be of little benefit for breeding fish, barnacles, mussels and a variety of marine life on which birds must rely.

Climate change, severe wind and ocean current fluctuations, and upwelling timing are causing significant die offs of birds and fish along the Pacific Coast and may have enormous implications for humans who rely on food from the ocean to thrive and survive.


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