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North Coast kelp beds ‘like a desert’ this year


Abalone diver Richard Hayman already had been observing troubling shifts in underwater conditions off the North Coast when he found himself gazing around the ocean floor in Arena Cove with a new level of alarm.

“It’s like a desert out there,” he recalled, describing a barren underwater landscape stripped of vegetation by colonies of purple urchins that vastly outnumbered the mollusks he sought. It looked, he said, “like a fire went through.”

During 25 years of diving, Hayman had come to know the area offshore the Mendocino County town of Point Arena as a source of succulent abalones, abundant and plump with meat.

 In June, he came ashore with his limit of three, despite a substantial reduction in the number of shellfish he saw. But they were so withered that, once removed from their shells, the creatures weighed less than a third of what they normally would.

“They’re starving to death,” the Calistoga man said. “It’s obvious.”

Hayman, 52, was among a dozen veteran divers who recently shared their observations at the midway point to the 2016 red abalone season, which resumes Aug. 1 after a month-long break and runs through November.

What they revealed was near consensus that all is not as usual out there, off the edge of the land, beneath the waves.

Scientists had predicted as much just before the season’s April 1 start, describing an unprecedented collapse of the North Coast’s iconic bull kelp forest and the resulting gloomy outlook for the abalone fishery and the overall ecosystem.

Divers reporting in over the past few weeks — people like Napa diver Andy Treweek, 55 — witnessed as much in some areas, where they discovered a few undersized abalone living on near-barren ocean floor.

Read more at: North Coast kelp beds ‘like a desert’ this year

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Toxic redux?

Read more at: Toxic Redux?

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State’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery to remain closed

The commercial Dungeness crab fishery will remain closed until the health advisory that halted the season can be lifted for the entire California coast, or south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced Wednesday.
The decision came down thanks to feedback from members of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery, said Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications for the CDFW.
“Well, it’s way better than it was,” said Stan Carpenter, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, noting the action is more fair than opening the season in some places and not others. “It could be better, though. You could close the recreational fishing as well. There are still people eating those crabs.”
“I understand that there are people suffering economic losses from this closure,” Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW Director, said in a press release. “However, the majority of the commercial fleet tells me they want a statewide opener or could live with an opener that adheres to traditional management areas, which would provide the utmost protection against someone falling ill from domoic acid poisoning.”
Source: State’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery to remain closed | The Press Democrat

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California's stranded sea lions suffering from brain damage caused by algal blooms

Scientists have gleaned fresh insight into the havoc wreaked by a microscopic culprit that has disrupted marine life this year along the Pacific Coast, not only tainting Northern California’s delicious supply of Dungeness crab but also sickening or killing hundreds of sea lions. It’s long been known that a tiny toxin called domoic acid, produced by marine algae known as pseudo-nitzschia, kills brain cells. But new research by a UC Santa Cruz team illuminates the relationship between damage to the brain and sea lions’ profound loss of memory and navigational skills. In recent years, biologists have increasingly observed a high number of California sea lions struggle onto beaches, weak, confused and trembling.
“They have a lot of difficulty navigating and finding food,” said Peter Cook, who presented the findings Monday at the biannual Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in San Francisco. “They have no sense of which way to go.”
While harmful algal blooms are not unusual, this year’s phenomenon was the largest ever recorded, lasting through the summer and extending from Santa Barbara to Alaska. Blooms of the toxic algae typically occur in the spring and last just a few weeks.
This year’s bloom caused the unprecedented shutdown of the commercial Dungeness and rock crab fisheries throughout most of California. But the toxin has affected other marine life as well, working its way up the food chain from razor clams to anchovies and other small fish to sea lions, one of the top predators in coastal waters.
For the first time ever, sick sea lions have been documented in Oregon and Washington, not just California, said Kathi Lefebvre, of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
An estimated one-third of stranded sea lions suffer from domoic acid poisoning, Cook said. The research is published in this week’s issue of the journal Science.
Read more at: California’s stranded sea lions suffering from brain damage caused by algal blooms – San Jose Mercury News

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Toxin in crab among impacts of warm sea that alarm scientists

 Peter Fimrite & Kurtis Alexander, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
The poisoning of Dungeness crab off the California coast by a mysterious algae bloom may be bad news for the seafood industry, but to marine biologists and climate scientists, it is a frightening omen of future distress to a vibrant ecosystem.
Experts say the toxin in the algae, which likely flourished in this year’s record-high ocean temperatures, is one symptom of a wholesale shift in the physical and biological makeup of the Pacific Ocean — a transformation so abrupt and merciless that it is endangering species and forcing migrations before our eyes.
“We are talking about a whole ecosystem change — including a lot of changes besides just the blooms,” said Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s really restructuring the way California looks.”
Tissue samples of Dungeness and rock crabs last week showed contamination by domoic acid, a neurotoxin known to cause seizures, coma and even death when consumed by animals or humans. The finding prompted California wildlife officials to delay the $60 million commercial crab season, which was supposed to start Nov. 15.
The poisonous algae, multiplying since April, is now estimated to be 40 miles wide, in some places reaching down as far as two football fields, marine biologists say. It is the biggest and most toxic bloom researchers have ever seen.
Read more at: Toxin in crab among impacts of warm sea that alarm scientists – San Francisco Chronicle

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California’s Dungeness crab season start in doubt due to toxic algae offshore


Though such algal blooms occur with some regularity, the size and density of the one this year has been considered especially alarming. It is believed linked to a band of unusually warm water stretching from Alaska to Mexico that has impacted coastal habitats in myriad ways.

With just a week to go before sport anglers can begin setting traps for Dungeness crab, a persistent bloom of toxic red algae off the Pacific Coast is threatening to disrupt the start of the catch and one of California’s most valuable fisheries.
State officials are awaiting test results they hope will come back by midweek before deciding if they will delay the Nov. 7 recreational start, as well as commercial seasons set to begin a week later, Fish and Wildlife personnel said.
Concern about a powerful neurotoxin called domoic acid produced by certain marine algae is driving the deliberations in California and in other regions, including Washington state, where much of the Dungeness crab fishery was closed through the summer because of high levels of domoic acid found in crustaceans there.
Read more at: California’s Dungeness crab season start in doubt due | The Press Democrat

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Water woes come to a head in Sonoma County


Even before the Russian River killed a dog 10 days ago, fighting over its water was getting ugly.

The Russian River runs through some of the best grapegrowing areas in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Thirty years ago it was thick with salmon swimming upstream from the Pacific Ocean. The water level has declined and the fish population has dropped with it. Four years of severe drought have aggravated the situation.
Now the Russian River has an algae problem. A family took its 3-year-old golden retriever on a river visit late last month near Westside Road, where some of the country’s most expensive Pinot Noir comes from. Moments after climbing to shore, the dog went into seizures, foamed at the mouth and died. County public health officials discovered a toxin produced by blue-green algae that can also affect humans. They issued a warning just before the Labor Day weekend about the dangers of swimming in the popular recreation spot.
In July the state of California imposed water-use restrictions on residents, forbidding them from watering their lawns and limiting how often they could wash their cars. However, it did not restrict water use to Sonoma County’s 439 wineries or its 60,000 acres of vineyards. There was at least one fist fight at a meeting to explain the restrictions to residents.
There may be no connection between the algae and either the river’s recent woes, or the wine industry. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, blue-green algae is most likely to proliferate in bodies of water with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous when the water is hot and the weather is calm, as it has been in Sonoma County for most of this summer. It’s a common problem in the southeast United States and is found all over the world.
“I am not aware of anything that wineries or vineyards will be contributing that will encourage the growth of such algae except using the water for irrigation, which may affect the water level,” UC Davis viticulture and enology professor Dr. Anita Oberholster told Wine-Searcher.
But the dog may become a symbol for an environmental movement that has grown over the years from a quiet rumbling to an outright roar, most of it directed at the growth of the wine industry.
In August, activists in four counties formed a group called Wine and Water Watch to try to concentrate their efforts. The new state regulations announced in July that exempted wineries and vineyards were a big motivating factor.
Read more at: Water Woes Come to a Head in Sonoma | Wine News & Features

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Warnings of toxic algae on Russian River

Bay City News Service, SFGATE.COM
Sonoma County officials began posting signs Friday at public beaches along the Russian River warning swimmers of possibly toxic algae blooms.
The Environmental Health and Safety Section of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board are recommending beach-goers practice safety precautions after health department officials detected small amounts of blue-green algae and toxins in the river.
County health officials are advising visitors to avoid drinking river water or cooking with it. Additionally, visitors should supervise young children near the water, as well pets.
Beach-goers are also advised to wash themselves, their families and their pets with clean water after swimming in the river, health department officials said.
Any fish caught in the river should be consumed only after the guts and liver have been removed and the fillet rinsed with clean water.
Although blue-green algae is common in many water environments, warm waters, low flows and abundant nutrients can cause algae to grow faster than usual.
Read more at: Warnings of toxic algae on Russian River in Sonoma County – SFGate

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West Coast toxic algae bloom worst in decade

An explosion of toxic algae along the West Coast has launched an expansive seagoing research project aimed at uncovering the roots of the growth, which contaminates shellfish and small fin fish with a poison that can kill the marine mammals, birds and people who eat them.
The current outbreak is the worst toxic algal bloom in more than a decade, stretching from California’s Central Coast to Washington, and possibly to Alaska, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The algae is producing toxins in unprecedented amounts in some “hot spots” along the coast, officials say.

“Researchers in both the Monterey Bay and the Central Oregon Coast have found some of the highest concentrations of domoic acid that they’ve ever seen,” NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said.

Scientists are hoping that a three-month ocean expedition, launched Monday, to monitor and collect samples of the single-celled marine plants producing toxins along the West Coast will help answer why their numbers have skyrocketed.

Unlike the algal blooms that have plagued freshwater bodies like Clear Lake, the microscopic algae — also called phytoplankton — are not visible to the naked eye. But when their numbers are large, the water takes on a brownish-green hue. Some types turn the water a red color, leading to a common moniker for the outbreaks — “red tides.”

Read more at: West Coast toxic algae bloom prompts extensive study | The Press Democrat