Report: West Coast’s ocean conditions “normal” again

ROHNERT PARK — Most of the residual effects of El Niño and “The Blob” on the Pacific Ocean have waned, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, released in early March. West Coast salmon catches, however, remains at below average conditions.

The “extreme marine heat wave” occurring between 2014 and 2016 off the California coast has effectively subsided, meaning the Pacific Ocean essentially returned to “average” conditions, according to NOAA officials.

“Ocean conditions off most of the U.S. West Coast are returning roughly to average, after an extreme marine heat wave from about 2014 to 2016 disrupted the California Current Ecosystem and shifted many species beyond their traditional range,” the NOAA Fisheries report stated. “Some warm waters remain off the Pacific Northwest, however.”

Two of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast marine laboratories – Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Northwest Fisheries Science – published the report as part of their annual “California Current Ecosystem Status Report.” The report was made at the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) meeting in Rohnert Park on March 9.

“The report gives us an important glimpse at what the science is saying about the species and resources that we manage and rely on in terms of our West Coast economy,” PFMC Chair Phil Anderson said in a released statement. “The point is that we want to be as informed as we can be when we make decisions that affect those species, and this report helps us do that.”

NOAA’s report stated the Pacific Ocean experienced warming water temperatures in 2014, when a phenomenon referred to as “The Blob” began. Warming conditions continued into 2015, courtesy of an unusually strong El Niño season, according to the NOAA report.

Improving ocean conditions means California sea lions and seabirds, which NOAA said experienced “mass die-offs” during the height of the most recent El Niño, will have improved feeding conditions.

“Plankton species, the foundation of the marine food web, have shifted back slightly toward fat-rich, cool-water species that improve the growth and survival of salmon and other fish,” the NOAA report stated.

The one area where recovery continues to lag, according to NOAA: the West Coast’s salmon population.

“Recent research surveys have found fewer juvenile salmon, and consequently adult salmon returns will likely remain depressed for a few years until successive generations benefit from improving ocean conditions,” NOAA officials stated in their report to PFMC members.

Prospects of a drought in 2018 could prevent the West Coast’s salmon populations from recovering at a quicker rate, the report added.

“Even as the effects of the Blob and El Niño dissipate, the central and southern parts of the West Coast face low snow pack and potential drought in 2018 that could put salmon at continued risk as they migrate back up rivers to spawn,” NOAA officials stated in their report.

NOAA researchers also stated whales continue to be entangled in fishing gear off the West Coast.

“Reports of whale entanglements in fishing gear have remained very high for the fourth straight year, as whales followed prey to inshore areas and ran into fishing gear such as pots and traps,” NOAA officials stated.

The NOAA report focused on the California Current, which, according to federal officials, “encompasses the entire West Coast marine ecosystem.” A report is released annually to inform PFMC members about the ecosystem’s conditions and trends, and how the current state of the current could affect marine species and fishing.

“NOAA Fisheries’ scientists compile the California Current Ecosystem Status Report from ocean surveys and other monitoring efforts along the West Coast,” federal officials stated. “The tracking revealed ‘a climate system still in transition in 2017,’ as surface ocean conditions return to near normal.

“Deeper water remained unusually warm, especially in the northern part of the California Current,” the NOAA statement continued. “Warm-water species, such as leaner plankton species often associated with subtropical waters, have lingered in these more-northern zones.”

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