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Fish numbers plummet in warming Pacific

Independent Online Edition > Environment

Disappearance of plankton causes unprecedented collapse in sea and bird life 
off western US coast
By Geoffrey Lean in San Francisco
Published: 13 November 2005

A catastrophic collapse in sea and bird life numbers along America's 
Northwest Pacific seaboard is raising fears that global warming is beginning 
to irreparably damage the health of the oceans.
Scientists say a dramatic rise in the ocean temperature led to unprecedented 
deaths of birds and fish this summer all along the coast from central 
California to British Columbia in Canada.
The population of seabirds, such as cormorants, auklets and murres, and 
fish, including salmon and rockfish, fell to record lows.
This ecological meltdown mirrors a similar development taking place 
thousands of miles away in the North Sea, which The Independent on Sunday 
first reported two years ago. Also caused by warming of the water, the 
increase in temperatures there has driven the plankton that form the base of 
the marine food chain hundreds of miles north, triggering a collapse in the 
number of sand eels on which many birds and large fish feed and causing a 
rapid decline in puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and other birds.
The collapses in the Pacific are also down to the disappearance of plankton, 
though the immediate cause for this is different. Normally, winds blow south 
along the coast in spring and summer, pushing warmer surface waters away 
from the shore and allowing colder water that is rich in nutrients to well 
up from the sea bottom, feeding the microscopic plants called phytoplankton. 
These are eaten by zooplankton, tiny animals that in turn feed fish, 
seabirds and marine mammals.
But this year the winds were extraordinarily weak and the cold water did not 
well up in spring as usual. Water temperatures soared to 7C above normal, 
which delighted bathers but caused the whole delicate system to collapse. 
The amount of phytoplankton crashed to a quarter of its usual level.
"In 50 years this has never happened," said Bill Peterson, an oceanographer 
with the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 
NOAA, in Newport, Oregon.
Record numbers of dead seabirds soon washed up on beaches along the coast. 
There were up to 80 times more dead Brandt's cormorants, a fishing bird, 
than in previous years.
Tests showed the birds died of starvation. "They are not finding enough 
food, and so they use up the energy stored in their muscles, liver and body 
fat," said Hannah Nevins, who investigated similar mass deaths in Monterey 
Many fear the ecological collapse is a portent of things to come, as the 
world heats up. A Canadian Government report noted that ocean temperatures 
off British Colombia reached record levels last year as well, blaming 
"general warming of global lands and oceans". And Professor Ronald Neilson, 
of Oregon State University, added: "The oceans are generally warming up and 
there are all sorts of signs that something strange is afoot."
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