The disappearance of the sardines, a major food source for mammals and seabirds, as well as farmed fish and humans, has become a major topic of discussion - as fishery operations for this small, oily and important forage fish faces sudden collapse.
A collapse of sardine populations
Commercial fishing for sardines off of Canada's West Coast is worth an estimated $32 million - but now they are suddenly gone. Back in October, fisherman reported that they came back empty-handed without a single fish after 12 hours of trolling and some $1000 spent on fuel.
It is not only the commercial value of sardines but their importance as a high-energy staple for whales, dolphins, sea lions, bluefin tuna, pelicans and other sea birds that makes this so significant. Steve Marx, a policy analyst for the Pew Charitable Trust, commented that the shortage "does not bode well for everything in the ocean that relies on sardines to get big and fat and healthy."
Contaminated water from Fukushima has arrived on the West Coast
While the reasons for these changes may be as complex as the ecological food web that connects them, no one is discussing the elephant in the room - Fukushima.
Admittedly, the contaminated radioactive water being dumped into the Pacific Ocean from the Japanese Fukushima plant has been circulating towards the West since the March 2011 nuclear accident.
The research community knew months before the public was told that high concentrations of cesium-137 had reached the shores of Alaska, British Columbia and California, and will soon reach Mexico. This bombardment of contaminated radioactive water will continue for years to come, with the best estimates showing that the levels will not peak for several years.
Cold-water sardines shifting with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation cycle
The likely impact of Fukushima on marine life throughout the Pacific is compounded by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation - which science only discovered as of 1997 but now believes is a major factor in shifting sardine populations and replacing them with anchovies. This cycle shifts the temperature of Pacific water over the course of decades, replacing warmer water with colder and vice versa, according to the North Pacific gyre's circular clockwise motion.
Only now, the cycling Pacific waters are also carrying with these shifting temperatures the contaminated radioactive waters flowing from Fukushima toward the West Coast - along with the cool water phase that makes high sardine populations less likely.
Earlier last century, the sardine fishery created a huge boom in Monterey, California's "Cannery Row," where enormous amounts of the fish were canned, before the population declined sharply to base levels in the late 50s, where they remained until they began rebounding in the mid-1980s, again driving a boom industry and peaking in about 1999. The sardines recovered again starting about 2003 but have since headed straight for the bottom again after peak numbers at nearly the same time as the Fukushima disaster.
How it is impacting whales and other marine life
The shortage of sardines and other prey is being blamed for some 1,600 sea lion pups that have been diagnosed as "malnourished" by marine biologists working along the West Coast. It is believed that the mother seals didn't produce enough milk to sustain their young. The same was found with brown pelicans, who've demonstrated tell-tale signs of starvation and produced fewer babies.
The quota for the sardine catch was lowered back in November by the Pacific Fishery Management Council after confirmation of severely dwindling population numbers; environmental groups like Oceana have demanded a complete halt to sardine fishing to prevent collapse.
"Is it El Nino? Pacific Decadal Oscillation? [La] Nina? Long-term climate change? More marine mammals eating sardines? Did they all go to Mexico or farther offshore? We don't know. We're pretty sure the overall population has declined. We manage them pretty conservatively because we don't want to end up with another Cannery Row so, as the population declines, we curb fishing." said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) official Kerry Griffin.
The Monterey County Weekly, a regional publication, highlighted some of the majesty of humpback whale watching ahead of its feature article on the decline of sardines, in part due to over-fishing.
Author David Schmalz wrote, "There's so much poetry in motion that it's hard to resist the idea that you are witnessing something historic, that these humpback whales - nearly all of whom normally migrate to Mexico some time in the fall - are trying to tell us something. And they are, if we listen."
The message is that anchovies have replaced much of the missing sardines as a major marine food source, which may explain the early migration of huge populations of whales.
Yet some fisherman have also turned up a zero-catch on anchovies, just after pulling in giant hauls that many have been relying upon to replace their usual sardine catch. Others have increasingly turned to market squid.
There are other signs, too, of things out of the ordinary: the first ever documented, photographed case of conjoined twin Gray whales washed up on shores in Baja California, Mexico - underdeveloped and apparently miscarried. There is no immediate explanation for the abnormal occurrence.
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