Plankton Go Missing Along Coastlines

Robert Siegel talks with Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, about the low levels of plankton in the waters off the coast of northern California, Oregon and Washington. Peterson says the winds that normally bring cold, nutrient-rich waters to the shore have not materialized this year, puzzling oceanographers.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Something is missing from the coastal waters off Northern California, Oregon and Washington state: plankton. The organisms at the bottom of the ocean food chain have not shown up this year in their usual numbers, and that means a wave of seabird deaths near the North Pacific coast, it also worries fisheries and we read also that it puzzles scientists. So we've called upon Bill Peterson, who is an oceanographer for NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Bill Peterson, are you puzzled?

Mr. BILL PETERSON (Hatfield Marine Science Center): Oh, I am very puzzled. This is one of the most unusual years we've seen in the ocean in a very, very long time.

SIEGEL: What actually has not happened? What would you normally see at this time of year that you're not seeing?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, normally this time of year, we will have had a lot of wind blowing out of the north, and that tends to push the surface waters offshore and those waters that are pushed offshore are then replaced by waters that come up from depth. And so this cold water comes up from depth and it's very rich in nutrients, in fertilizers. And so this cold water with fertilizers tends to fertilize the whole water, and it creates usually massive blooms of plankton. This year, we've had virtually no wind from the north at all.

SIEGEL: This is what you call upwelling.

Mr. PETERSON: It's called upwelling, right. And we have basically had no upwelling this year to speak of.

SIEGEL: How often does that happen?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, pretty much never. You know, we will certainly have years when the upwelling winds won't blow for maybe only three or four months, but this is the first year ever when we haven't had any winds at all.

SIEGEL: What are the species actually that are really jeopardized by this right now?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, the interesting thing that's happening this year is that most of the species we see off the coast right now, the planktonic species, are warm-water species that ordinarily live offshore of Oregon. And they've been kind of carried onto the coast because we haven't had these winds that would push that water offshore. And the problem with these warm-water species is that they're very small and they have a very low fat content. So the food chain that's fueled by these animals tends to be kind of impoverished, both because of the small size of animals, the small biomass, and their fat content.

SIEGEL: Well, if the food's not there for one summer, what does that mean? Could the impact on the coastal fish and wildlife be just one bad year and then next year the stocks are replenished, or is there a possibility of a permanent loss of fish and wildlife?

Mr. PETERSON: Yeah. You know, one bad year isn't going to be a problem at all for these animals. Most of the birds that are having trouble are birds that live for 15 or 20 years, so if they miss a year of laying eggs, it's no big deal. The same with--some of these fish out there live to be a hundred years old, and those fish can also get through one bad year without any problem. The issue, though, is coming to be that this is kind of the third year of kind of warm ocean conditions, so it's getting to be a kind of a chronic problem.

SIEGEL: There are fish that live for a hundred years off the Pacific coast?

Mr. PETERSON: Yeah, there's several species of what are called rock fish that live--you know, 80 years is quite common. And I think they've found fish that are 140 years old out there.

SIEGEL: When you talk about the range between cold ocean waters and warmer ocean waters this year, what number of degrees Fahrenheit difference are we talking about here? What's the range?

Mr. PETERSON: Yeah. Well, this particular summer, we are right now about plus 3 degrees centigrade above normal, and that's about 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

SIEGEL: Is this related to either an El Nino or a La Nina or the tsunami or any other phenomenon we've experienced in the Pacific?

Mr. PETERSON: You know, this looks like an El Nino, for sure. This is exactly what we would expect from an El Nino. But these El Nino events start at the equator and worked their way north. But there's no El Nino at the equator right now, so the equator isn't the source of the warm water. It seems to simply be that the North Pacific isn't producing the winds that it normally would do.

SIEGEL: I'm talking with Bill Peterson, who is an oceanographer for NOAA. He is based actually at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon.

Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. PETERSON: Thank you.

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