Friday, July 28, 2006

The Dead Zone Returns to Oregon's Coast

As if things for the state's fishing industry couldn't get any worse this summer, there's something else to worry about--waters being sucked of their oxygen and turning nature's bounty into a hypoxic graveyard. For the fifth year in a row, and in the most severe case yet, a "dead zone" is literally sucking the life out of marine animals:
In May and June, strong winds over the ocean pulled cold, oxygen-poor and nutrient-rich water from deeper areas and brought it closer to shore, a process known as "upwelling." Normally, upwelling is good news for the Dungeness crab, rockfish and other species that thrive on plant life.

"Then the winds quieted down. We had no upwelling winds, a couple of weeks of very calm seas and all those microscopic plants that had been growing like gangbusters started to die and sink," [OSU marine ecologist Jane] Lubchenco said. "And the bacteria that began to decay used up all the rest of the oxygen in the water."

Ocean water generally has about 2 to 4 milliliters of dissolved oxygen per liter of water. Anything less than 1.4 milliliters per liter can kill a wide range of marine life. Levels in the current hypoxic dead zone have dropped to as low as .55 milliliters per liter.
Not good, obviously. What's causing it? It's a naturally occurring phenomenon, but you'll never guess what makes them worse--or actually, you probably will:
The lack of correlation with any El Niño or La Niña events combined with the dramatic swings of recent years could suggest a human link, OSU oceanographer Jack Barth said.

"What I do know is the climate change models for this part of the world say if you heat up the land more, you get a change in upwelling winds," Barth said. "They'll be delayed in the spring and stronger late in the year. That's exactly what we saw last year. What I'm comfortable saying is it's consistent with climate change"..."Something about the system that's very fundamental has changed," said Jane Lubchenco...
We're not the only ones in the dead zone; half of Washington state's coastline has been hit by the same phenomenon. Not all species are affected the same; faster moving fish like the salmon--already in enough danger from dams and diverted river water for farming--are able to sense the depletion in oxygen and swim away. But for the tasty Dungeness crab, feeding an industry that brought an estimated record of $150 million {swf} to Oregon's economy last year--making it the largest producer in the world--there's little way to escape. Almost all of this year's harvest had already been completed by the time of the decay, and as noted things are pretty good for crabbers recently, but they could have been even better--and big kills could adversely affect the 06-07 season:
Florence crabber Al Pazar figures that he lost thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars last year after pulling up pots full of dead Dungeness crab during the 2005 dead zone event.

"There were little baby octopus, an inch or two inches big, climbing up my crab lines, trying to get away," Pazar said. "It's kind of a sad affair."

This year he's heard reports from fishermen who've hauled in pots with everything inside them dead.

"You can smell it," Pazar said.