Oregon dead zone: are the oceans turning to poison?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

'Dead zone' startles scientists

Graveyard - A video survey Tuesday finds offshore areas of the Pacific Ocean 
completely empty of marine life

Thursday, August 10, 2006
The Oregonian

Ocean scientists took their first look Tuesday into the oxygen-starved "dead 
zone" spreading off the Oregon Coast and were shocked by what they saw: a 
lifeless wasteland of thousands of dead crabs, starfish and no live fish at all.

"It was a real eye-opener for all of us," said Hal Weeks, a marine ecologist 
with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I don't think anybody expected
this sort of thing."

Dead Dungeness crabs off Cape Perpetua, just south of Yachats, "were like 
jellybeans in a jar. You just can't count them, there were so many."

Oxygen levels in places along the central Oregon Coast have sunk to the lowest 
levels ever recorded on the West Coast of the United States, said Francis Chan, 
a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and the Partnership for 
Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, an alliance of research 

Scientists suspect swings in the Earth's climate tied to global warming may be 
shifting wind conditions to bring about such grim results.

Seawater turns deadly for marine life when concentrations of the dissolved 
oxygen they breathe fall below about 1.4 milliliters per liter. On Monday, Chan 
measured a concentration of .05, or almost 30 times below the lethal level, 
about 90 feet below the surface.

It is very close to a complete absence of oxygen, a situation rarely known in 
the world's oceans, said Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon
State. New bacteria that take over when oxygen disappears are known to release 
poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas.

"We never suspected that could happen here," Lubchenco said.

This is the fifth consecutive summer that a layer of low-oxygen water has 
blanketed the ocean floor along the Oregon Coast, and it has rapidly turned into
the most severe episode so far. The layer this year is thicker, lower in oxygen 
and far larger, covering at least four times more area than in previous years, 
Lubchenco said.

It stretches at least from Lincoln City to near Florence, and the conditions 
appear to be worsening.

Oregon owes its rich marine environment to water welling up from the deep ocean,
rich in nutrients but low in oxygen. The difference this year is that winds from
the south have been too unreliable to cycle surface water with more oxygen into 
the depths, Chan said.

Instead, winds from the north are driving the oxygen-poor waters into shallow 
reaches closer to shore. As tiny marine organisms sink below the surface, their 
decay sucks more oxygen from the water.

Scientists who have watched the eerie phenomenon repeat itself now wonder 
whether climate changes linked to global warming are causing changes in the jet 
stream, which drives Oregon winds.

Though they had tracked the oxygen concentrations, they did not know what was 
happening to sea life until Tuesday, when a video camera aboard a 
remote-controlled submarine operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and 
Wildlife gave them a look.

Rocky stretches of ocean floor off Cape Perpetua that normally teem with crab, 
rockfish, anemones and more had turned into ghostly graveyards. Dead crabs 
rocked with the water, fat pink worms that usually live in the seafloor instead 
lay dead on the surface and starfish had begun rotting away.

"People were sitting around the video screens with their mouths hanging open," 
Lubchenco said.

The research team saw no fish, dead or alive, in any of the three spots they 
surveyed. That is different than in 2002, when they found dead fish lying on the

"They were MIA completely," she said.

Fish in the area may have fled to waters with more oxygen, while slower-moving 
crabs and starfish suffocated. Or any fish that died may have washed away.

"I hope the fish might have been able to get up and move," Weeks said.

It is unclear what it means for fishermen and crabbers, he said. There have been
reports of some anglers being skunked in usually reliable fishing spots. Chan 
said he had heard from a salmon fishermen who caught a flounder, a bottomfish, 
far above the bottom, where it may have been avoiding the suffocating layer.

But the last few crab seasons have brought record catches despite the appearance
of dead zones, said Al Pazar, a fisherman from Florence and member of the Oregon
Dungeness Crab Commission.

"The short answer is, 'yes, I'm concerned,' " he said. "The long answer is, 
'we'll have to watch this and see what happens.' "

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; •••@••.•••

©2006 The Oregonian

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