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Colorful sea star stricken by disease vanishes from most of the West Coast

Darryl Fears, WASHINGTON POST

Six years after it was stricken by a wasting disease off the northern California coast, the sunflower sea star – one of the most colorful starfish in the ocean – has all but vanished, and the domino effect threatens to unravel an entire marine ecosystem.

The cause of the sea star’s demise is a mystery, but it coincided with a warming event in the Pacific Ocean, possibly tied to the climate, that lasted for two years ending in 2015. It heated vast stretches of water in patches, and likely exacerbated the disease, according to a new study released Wednesday.

“I’ve never seen a decline of this magnitude of a species so important,” Drew Harvell, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Science Advances, that documented the sunflower sea star’s retreat into possible extinction off California and Oregon.

If the study had a purpose, she said, it was to call attention to the sea star’s demise so that federal officials would take action to list it as endangered and work to save it, possibly with a breeding program using sunflower stars that are surviving in parts of Washington, Alaska and Canada.

“It’s big news and cause for major management action,” Harvell said. “We felt there wasn’t enough attention.”

Read more at https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2019/02/01/colorful-sea-star-stricken-by-disease-vanishes-from-most-of-the-west-coast/

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Drakes Beach in Point Reyes to reopen for up-close elephant seal viewing

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In a first-time experiment for a new colony of elephant seals at Drakes Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore administrators will reopen the site to visitors this weekend for an up-close view of intriguing creatures hunted to near extinction a century ago.

A phalanx of park rangers and volunteer docents will be on hand to move small groups of visitors along the edge of a parking lot near the beach to ensure the elephant seals and their newborn pups are not disturbed and that no humans end up in harm’s way.

It’s an exciting and unexpected opportunity for visitors to witness the recovery of a once-threatened species and to observe the females with their babies just yards away, park personnel said.

But it’s going to be a balancing act, with rainy weather expected to dampen crowds enough to make the task possible, park personnel said.

“We’re just going to manage the heck out of it,” Point Reyes Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said. “Our winter wildlife program is very rigorous. We have a lot of people eager to get back to work after the shutdown and volunteer docents eager to get back to what they do. We’re going to have a lot of staff on duty.”

Visitors have been able for decades to see elephant seals at the seashore, where they began appearing in the 1970s after an absence of more than 150 years. Though the marine mammals spend most of their lives out in the ocean, they return to shore each winter to birth pups and breed and, later, in spring or summer, to molt.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9232226-181/drakes-beach-in-point-reyes?ref=related

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Elephant seals take over beach as Point Reyes reopens after shutdown

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the absence of heavy visitor traffic and regular staff wildlife management, the burgeoning elephant seal colony that has been drifting along the shoreline from Chimney Rock for several years appears to have gotten a foot-hold at Drakes Beach, though it’s not entirely clear where the elephant seals there came from.

What’s clear is they find it a safe and protected place to bear offspring. By Monday, there were about 50 females with 40 pups and more on the way, as well as a dominant bull and several subordinates.

The listless malaise common to many workplaces on Monday mornings was nowhere apparent among national park staffers, as workers returned from a 35-day layoff imposed on them by a political showdown 3,000 miles away.

Their email in-boxes were brimming and the awaiting work load unmeasured, given 150 miles of back-country trails still to patrol for downed trees and other damage from recent winter storms.

But everywhere, people were clearly glad to be in uniform and back on the job after a long, uncertain and stressful wait.

A Monday morning meeting of about 80 personnel just to check in and mark the occasion was more like a high school reunion than anything else, Point Reyes National Seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso said.

Wildlife ecologist Dave Press said everyone was glad to see one another and find out how they had passed the month away from work.

“It was very uplifting,” said Dell’Osso, a 36-year employee of the seashore. “It was great to see everybody.”

The public was allowed during the federal shutdown to use trails and roads on the 71,000-acre seashore, a year-round attraction to locals and tourists alike.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9221142-181/point-reyes-national-seashore-reopens

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Habitats, WildlifeTags , , ,

From Sonoma County to Antarctica, Point Blue studies climate change through birds

Jeanne Wirka, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tucked behind a Petaluma office park overlooking Shollenberger wetlands, the headquarters of Point Blue Conservation Science can be difficult to find without a map.

Yet this 53-year-old, Petaluma-based organization is doing globally significant work from Alaska to Antarctica, and from the Sierra Nevada to the California coastline. Point Blue’s 160 scientists form a kind of “geek squad” for nature — unapologetically generating, interpreting and leading with data that document impacts of a changing climate and other threats to wildlife and ecosystems.

“We are driven by data,” said Point Blue’s chief scientist, Grant Ballard. “If the data don’t say anything, we don’t say anything.”

Since its 1965 origins as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, the organization’s scientists and their collaborators have recorded more than a billion observations of birds and other wildlife from field stations throughout California and in Antarctica. According to Ballard, it is precisely these long-term data sets, some of which dates 50 years, that set Point Blue apart.

“By taking the long view, we can speak with credibility about whether changes are happening or not.”

It comes as no surprise then that climate change has become the central focus of Point Blue’s research and that “climate-smart conservation” is now the cornerstone of its strategy.

The complexity of how and whether animals respond to changes in their environment is perhaps best illustrated by one of Point Blue’s most charismatic long-term research subjects, the Adélie (pronounced “uh-DELL-ee”) penguin, a tough little bird whose population in Antarctica’s Ross Sea has actually been increasing during the time Point Blue has been studying them.

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , , ,

Oceans are warming even faster than previously thought

Kendra Pierre-Louis, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Scientists say the world’s oceans are warming far more quickly than previously thought, a finding with dire implications for climate change because almost all the excess heat absorbed by the planet ends up stored in their waters.

A new analysis, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. The researchers also concluded that ocean temperatures have broken records for several straight years.

“2018 is going to be the warmest year on record for the Earth’s oceans,” said Zeke Hausfather, an energy systems analyst at the independent climate research group Berkeley Earth and an author of the study. “As 2017 was the warmest year, and 2016 was the warmest year.”

As the planet has warmed, the oceans have provided a critical buffer. They have slowed the effects of climate change by absorbing 93 percent of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases humans pump into the atmosphere.

“If the ocean wasn’t absorbing as much heat, the surface of the land would heat up much faster than it is right now,” said Malin L. Pinsky, an associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University. “In fact, the ocean is saving us from massive warming right now.”

But the surging water temperatures are already killing off marine ecosystems, raising sea levels and making hurricanes more destructive.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/climate/ocean-warming-climate-change.html

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Environmental group sues California over whale-killing gear 

Olga R. Rodriguez, ASSOCIATED PRESS
An environmental group sued the state of California on Tuesday for allegedly not doing enough to keep Dungeness crab fishery gear from killing protected whales.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed its lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, saying the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is liable for a surge in entanglements of endangered whales and sea turtles because it authorizes and manages operation of the fishery.
California should put in place more mandatory protection measures, such as blocking fishing operations from especially important waters for whales, restricting the amount of gear in whale hotspots and reducing the amount of rope running through the water, the center said.
Read more at: Environmental group sues California over whale-killing gear | The Tribune

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Scientists find exotic life in ocean depths off Sonoma Coast

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Thirteen years ago, he made history by filming the sunken RMS Titanic where it lay broken on the Atlantic seabed.Since then, he’s dived in nearly every ocean on the planet. On a good day, he can swim for 24 hours — but at 2 tons, he needs help getting out of the water.His associates call him Hercules.
And this month, the bright yellow, remotely operated diving vehicle was in the Pacific off Sonoma County to explore, for the first time, the deep-water life in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 6 miles west of Bodega Bay.
For ROV Hercules, that meant commuting an hour-and-a-half to work, driving nearly 6,000 feet beneath the rolling ocean swells. With two flexible arms, dazzling lights, video cameras and a long, long tether, Hercules was designed to go where humans cannot — to peer into the unknown.
On a clear day when the fog lifts, you can see the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary from shore, from either Bodega Head or Point Reyes. On the surface, it’s an unremarkable patch of blue ocean. But go 115 feet down, and you’ll find a submerged rocky island, 9 miles long and 4 miles wide, teeming with fish and a riot of colorful marine life.

Fish and coral at the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary
Fish and coral at the Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary. Joe Hoyt, CBNMS NOAA.

The shallow bank is actually the peak of an underwater mountain sitting in what scientists call a biological hotspot. Surrounded by deep, steep walled canyons, the rocky seamount perches on the very edge of the continental shelf, which falls away in a vertical cliff another 2 miles down. No sunlight can penetrate that deep, so the walls and bottom are in permanent blackness, the water is nearly as cold as ice, and the sheer weight of the ocean above creates crushing pressure, nearly 5,000 pounds per square inch. That’s equivalent to two fully loaded 747 jumbo jets sitting on your chest.
So what’s special about Cordell Bank? Jennifer Stock, the enthusiastic Outreach Coordinator for the Marine Sanctuary, answers that question a lot from her headquarters at Point Reyes. Jennifer was also one of the lucky few pulling watch on board the Nautilus during Hercules’ dives.
Read more at: Scientists find exotic life in ocean depths off Sonoma Coast | The Press Democrat –

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Campaign seeks to defend California marine sanctuaries in face of Trump energy order 

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Top political leaders are joining North Coast counties and environmentalists in supporting marine sanctuaries in the face of President Donald Trump’s order to reconsider additions to all four of the sanctuaries that protect the California coast from oil drilling.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and the Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino county boards of supervisors have officially called for preserving sanctuaries that surround the Channel Islands and protect the coast from San Luis Obispo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County.
“Californians cherish their Pacific coastline and ocean resources,” Feinstein and Harris said in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last week, extolling the value of the sanctuaries. “These areas are simply irreplaceable.”
The four sanctuaries cover more than 12,300 square miles — about the size of the coastal counties from Marin to Del Norte plus Napa and Lake counties — and protect places such as the Monterey Canyon, Farallon Islands and Cordell Bank, a biologically rich seamount off the Marin coast.
The pro-sanctuary campaign gained focus Friday with an announcement that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will open on Monday a 30-day public comment period on a review of recent additions to the sanctuaries ordered by Trump on April 28.
Read more at: Campaign seeks to defend California marine sanctuaries in face of Trump energy order | The Press Democrat

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Visitors to Northern California marine sanctuaries pump $1.2 billion into economy

Eloísa Ruano González, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PDF: North and Central Coast marine sanctuaries in NOAA study
PDF: Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank marine sanctuaries
Visitors drawn to kayaking, surfing and sightseeing along the protected waters off Northern California’s coast pumped more than $1.2 billion into the region, according to a new federal study.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at low-impact recreational visitors to the Greater Farallones and the northern portion of the Monterey Bay marine sanctuary in 2011 and their economic impact on coastal counties including Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin.
Conservationists say the data, published last week, highlights the benefits marine sanctuaries can provide for residents and the importance of protecting the coast, bolstering their push to expand the sanctuaries along a greater extent of the state’s shoreline.
“These are huge numbers,” said Richard Charter, a Sonoma Coast resident and senior fellow with the Washington D.C.-based Ocean Foundation. “(They’re) telling us without any doubt that a clean coast means a healthy economy.”
Visitors to Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary alone spent $86 million, mostly on food, drinks and lodging in surrounding counties, according to the peer-reviewed study. That, in return, provided a boost to local businesses and generated more than a thousand jobs.
Read more at: Visitors to Northern California marine sanctuaries pump $1.2 | The Press Democrat

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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