Between the summer 2015 and spring of 2016, around 60,000 dead sea birds washed up on shore all along the west coast of the US and Canada, according a January 16, 2020 article by Jessica Corbett in Common Dreams. For years, the reason for these mysterious deaths was unknown. However, a study published by the University of Washington claimed a marine heatwave causing a 1,000-mile-long “hot blob” with increased water temperature caused the starvation of the sea birds. Further independent coverage by environmental news blog The Big Wobble has documented that the blob is also affecting fisheries around the world. Scientists claim global climate change is making these phenomena more common around the world.
The “hot blob” both caused a drop in production of algae and also an increase in the production of harmful algae. In this way, the “blob” created tougher competition for small prey which predatory fish like salmon, cod, and halibut come out victorious from. Although the number of washed up seabirds were around 60,000, Corbett pointed out that previous studies show that only a “fraction of birds that die at sea typically wash ashore.” The blob has been forming since 2013, and the weather phenomenon “El Niño” accelerated the temperatures of the heatwave during 2015 with the blob reaching an average of 11° Fahrenheit above average water temperatures. The situation shows how big of an impact a small rise in average ocean temperatures can have on the underwater ecosystem. The study concluded, “in light of predicted global warming trends and the associated likelihood of more frequent heatwaves,” as a warning for the future effects of global climate change.
The “hot blob” has also had an effect on predatory fish like the cod and salmon of the Alaskan gulf, forcing the Gulf of Alaska fishery to close for the first time ever for the 2020 season, according to The Big Wobble. Until the emergence of the “hot blob”, Gulf cod were doing well, but recent reports show that the pacific cod population never recovered after the first heatwave caused by the blob. According to The Big Wobble, the cod numbers crashed by more than half, leading to the closing of cod fisheries. With the lack of smaller fish that both sea birds and predatory fish rely on for food, the migration of the sea birds across the pacific to Oceania for the winter was made significantly harder. The thousands of dead sea birds that washed up on Australian beaches are proof of this.
The independent news outlet Common Dreams first reported on the study. Corporate media coverage has included included outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, National Geographic, and independent media such as the Guardian have also published reports. However, with the exception of the Washington Post’s podcast about the South Atlantic blob, no corporate new outlets touched on the blob’s impact on fisheries.
Jessica Corbett, “Scale of This Failure Has No Precedent: Scientists Say Hot Ocean ‘Blob’ Killed One Million Seabirds,” Common Dreams, January 16, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/01/16/scale-failure-has-no-precedent-scientists-say-hot-ocean-blob-killed-one-million.
Gary Walton, “Fish All Gone! Gulf of Alaska Fishery to Close for the First Time Ever: No More Cod: Salmon All but Gone: Millions of Small Sea Birds Died since 2015,” The Big Wobble, December 8, 2019, https://www.thebigwobble.org/2019/12/fish-all-gone-gulf-of-alaska-fishery-to.html.
Student Researcher: Elmer Eng (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)