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A perfect storm is ravaging the local ocean environment.

Severe natural disasters are often associated with dramatic scenes and visible chaos: raging fires, crumbling streets or even flying debris. However, a much quieter, but potentially more long-lasting natural disaster has been festering along the Sonoma County coast in the depths of the Pacific. Greenhouse gas emissions, the human-caused engine of climate change, warm the Earth’s surface by trapping heat in the atmosphere, and the oceans are not immune from the impact. In fact, the vast majority of that trapped heat is absorbed by the oceans, and they are reaching their limit. Local researchers and marine biologists at the Bodega Marine Lab and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are now trying to explain how we got here and how to address the significantly altered coastline where lush kelp forests once thrived and myriad species lived and mingled symbiotically. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Northern California kelp forests have been reduced to an all-time low due to a ‘perfect storm’ of large scale ecological impacts.” The main factors in this perfect storm causing this disaster are an increase in water temperature, ocean acidification and rising sea levels, with one issue feeding into the other. These environmental stress factors ultimately lead to more frequent algae blooms and more die offs in marine life such as sea stars, the natural predator of the purple sea urchin. With more sea urchins living due to the lack of sea stars, more kelp is consumed and more dominos that affect the kelp forest start to fall.

Warming Water Temperatures According to the California Office of Environmental and Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), “about 90% of the Earth’s increased heat energy over the last 50 years has accumulated in the oceans. Globally, the transfer of heat from the atmosphere to the oceans has resulted in warming to depths of 3,000 meters over the past several decades. Ocean warming can disrupt marine ecosystems. It affects fisheries and other commercially important sectors in California that rely on marine productivity.” The OEHHA has sensors placed in three locations along the coast — La Jolla, Pacific Grove and Trinidad Bay — and those sensors show that “sea surface temperature increased at the rate of 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade at Pacific Grove (between 1920 and 2014) and at La Jolla (between 1917 and 2016). Since 1973, however, warming at La Jolla occurred at a faster rate of 0.6 degrees per decade. At Trinidad Bay, sea surface temperatures increased at the rate of 0.4 degrees per decade over the same shorter time period (1973-2016).” According to the OEHHA, some of the effects seen along the California coastline include influencing the timing of key life stages such as breeding, development of egg to larvae and migration; changing the abundance of prey, predators, parasites and competitors; initiating toxic algal blooms; shifting the distribution of marine species; and altering ocean mixing patterns wherein warming increases stratification between layers of warmer and cooler seawater. Stratification reduces the normal mixing across layers of seawater — a process that transports nutrients, oxygen, carbon, plankton and other material that support the marine ecosystem. In a study from Rutgers University published in the journal Nature, scientists found that warming temperatures have a more significant impact on marine species than terrestrial ones. According to the study, the scientists calculated "thermal safety margins" for 88 marine and 318 terrestrial species, determining how much warming they can tolerate and how much exposure they have to those heat thresholds. See The Perfect Storm, Page 2


EDITORIAL ..........................................................................PAGE COVER STORY CONTINUED ....................................PAGE MARINE MAMMALS ........................................................PAGE THE COLLAPSE OF KELP ............................................PAGE

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PROBLEMS WITH PLASTIC..........................................PAGE FISHING SEASONS SHORTENED..........................PAGE CLEANING UP ....................................................................PAGE DEPTH OF THE PROBLEM ........................................PAGE

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Page 2 deep trouble AUGUST 2019




Rollie Atkinson




Once upon a time, perhaps less than a generation ago, we thought of our oceans as being so vast that they would be invulnerable to any of man’s influences from over-fishing, climate change or ceaseless pollution. With 70% of our planet covered by oceans, some as deep as our Grand Canyon, we thought even the most crass abuse of these endless waters would be absorbed by natural cycles of recovery and resiliency. What were we thinking? Emerging scientific findings reported here in this special newspaper report and elsewhere are proving the opposite to be true. Instead of being less susceptible to man-made environmental degradation and pollution, it turns out our oceans have been taking the full brunt of climate change, new biochemical imbalances and mounting chains of ecological catastrophes and chain sequences of stressors. There is a global crisis with the warming, acidification and pollution of all of our oceans. Much worse, there is also a very local, accelerating catastrophe taking place with our own oceanic waters — our Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin coast. We had plenty of warning signs, but they have failed to reveal the more complete story. The

closing of our sport fishing abalone season, the sudden disappearance of sea stars from our rocky shores, increased toxic algae blooms and weatherman notes about about El Niños and “warm blobs,” — none of that has been enough to wake us up to what we are now calling our “Deep Trouble.” Local marine biologists at the Bodega Marine Laboratory and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) have a different name for this ecological crisis. To them, our local ocean has been hit with a “perfect storm.” A set of large-scale ecological impacts has almost totally destroyed the undersea ecosystem previously anchored by vast kelp forests. In less than a decade the once-teeming and lush habitat is 93% gone, replaced by barren zones, overtaken by unwanted predator species, and resembling an underwater moonscape. Imagine if our Northern California coastal redwood forests were to die off or disappear in less than a decade. This dead zone would mean a loss for nearly all companion plants and dependent forest creatures such as deer, squirrels, birds and small mammals. This nightmarish scene would confront us on our daily commute and travels. We’d be compelled to action, as we have mounted in the wake of our wildfires. The stark difference with our collapsing ocean is it lies deep under water where only few have ventured to see it. Our reach of the Pacific Ocean has always gone through natural cycles of temperature and current

flow changes, emerging or re-balancing of fisheries, invertebrate populations and predator activity. El Niños and toxic algae blooms are part of a natural cycle. But this time many of these “stressors” have occurred at the same time and many scientists are now worried that our ocean may not be able to heal itself this time. The warm water shocks of both 2014 and 2015 pushed our coastal water temperatures to record high levels. All ocean species are very sensitive to temperature changes and warmer water holds low amounts of the nutrients the kelp plants and forest habitat species require. Already this collapse has led to socioeconomic impacts to our local sport and commercial fisheries, not the least of which is the total loss of the annual sport abalone season. CDFW monitors and volunteers are in the early stages of spreading warnings and conducting public education and awareness programs. Early experiments with replanting the bull kelp plants and eradicating the voracious purple urchin predator are just beginning. Scientists fear our ocean may be facing an extended period of uncertain recovery — and one that cannot be successful without human intervention. In other words, our “deep troubles” may only be beginning. We urge everyone to become more informed and not allow this ecological crisis to remain invisible. — Rollie Atkinson


BEHIND THE PROJECT Thank you for picking up our special section on the collapsing ecosystem of the Sonoma Coast. We tapped our many local resources to gather the latest information and talked to many active locals to ensure we were covering as much of our ocean’s health as we could fit into eight pages. We talked to scientists, volunteers and those who make their livelihood on the ocean to get the full perspective. What we found was that every level of life in the ocean has been affected, including our own. From the titanic whale to the smallest of fish, life has struggled to adjust to an ocean changing more rapidly than it has in recorded history. It is sad to see the corpses of animals bloated by plastic or look across a barren underwater rock scape and know it was once a forest of kelp. But only by learning about this disaster can we learn how to reverse it. If this problem continues, we not only will lose species that we do know, we will lose the opportunity to learn more about the natural state of our ocean. We know so little about our depths that new species and habits are discovered all the time. If the ocean wastes further, we may never have another chance to learn about these novel and important ecological interactions. We would like to thank the Russian Riverkeeper for its support in this project. We’d also like to thank everyone — there are too many to name here — who helped us understand and gather this information. It is our hope that through this work, we can all become more informed and motivated to do more to help our ocean.

— Andrew Pardiac, Managing Editor

a special supplement to the cloverdale reveille, the healdsburg tribune, the windsor times and sonoma west times & news

Graphic California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Heather Bailey and Katherine Minkiewicz SONOMA WEST PUBLISHERS

Continued from page 1 “At the warm edges of the marine species' ranges, the study found, more than half had disappeared from historical territory as a result of warming. The rate for these local extinctions is twice that seen on land.” Even just a degree or half-degree boost, the study found, can lead to trouble finding food, reproducing and other devastating effects. While some species will be able to migrate to new territory, others — coral and sea anemones, for example — can't move and will simply go extinct. According to a study from OEHHA, during the 2014-15 marine heat wave, a variety of marine animals including fish, sea turtles and red crabs were found in waters farther north than their usual distribution. Mass strandings of some marine mammals and sea birds also occurred. Locally, some temperature change can be normally expected, according to Andre Boustany, principal fisheries investigator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but recent years have seen wild swings in normally more predictable patterns. “(The) El Niño (weather event) is fairly frequent but there are some indicators that those are becoming more frequent likely due to climate change,” Boustany said. He noted that the El Niño event, which is a warming of waters in the Pacific, in 2014 and 2015 were particularly strong. Another likely cause of increased water temperatures locally, according to Boustany, is the “warm blob” phenomenon. Warm water temperatures are usually in the tropical regions, but this was unusually warm water way up north near Washington state. “It propagated down to Northern California and was here before the

last big El Niño. That is something that we are not used to seeing. This warm blob was really something new,” he said. According to the U.S. National Park Service, the blob is thought to have been caused by warmer air temperatures, changes in wind speed, duration and direction and a persistent mass of warmer water near the equator. He added that global impacts in temperatures could also cause changes to the California coastal waters. The resulting effect is a chain reaction that starts with little things like zooplankton and goes all the way to the top of the food chain. “All of these things are related,” Boustany said.

Ocean acidification

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “The ocean has become more acidic over the past few decades because of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which dissolves in the water. Higher acidity affects the balance of minerals in the water, which can make it more difficult for certain marine animals to build their protective skeletons or shells.” According to the OEHHA, “ocean acidification adds to the already naturally high levels of CO2 in the waters off California. Here, a winddriven process called “upwelling” brings deeper, CO2-rich waters to the surface. As a result, California’s coastal waters may reach acidic conditions before other areas of the world, allowing for the early examination of the impacts of ocean acidification. These impacts include shell dissolution and inhibited shell or skeletal formation in some species; impaired physiology and behavior in fish which are sensitive to even small changes in water chemistry and could result in altered pH in fish blood and impair hearing or the ability of fish to navigate effectively; disrupted marine ecology; increased impacts of other stressors on coastal ecosystems; and potential losses to

the seafood industry as it could impact many economically important species and California’s commercial and recreational seafood industries are critical to its coastal economies. “When you have effects of upwelling and more (carbon dioxide), that can cause a low pH,” Boustany explained, “it can affect zooplankton and even commercially important animals like oysters. Low pH dissolves their shells.” In California, the OEHHA monitors pH levels from a sensor array near Santa Barbara. They measure carbon levels and pH both near the shore and 140 miles out to sea. While both areas show increases, the change is more dramatic closer to shore. However, data for California has only been collected since 2010, and is not considered a large enough data set to create conclusions from. A similar monitoring station set up in the Hawaiian islands has been operational since 1988 and represents the longest-running measurement of ocean acidity in the Pacific. The data collected there shows the CO2 levels have increased steadily at the rate of 1.92 microatmospheres per year (μatm/year), and the pH has decreased at the rate of 0.002 μatm/year per year from 1988 to 2015. With warmer water and a lower pH, there can also be a change in oxygen levels in the water. “There has been an increase in the frequency of marine dead zones, low oxygen areas. It’s associated with things like red tide and algae blooms,” Boustany said. According to the Smithsonian, a particularly bad algal bloom will not only smell nasty enough to repel beachgoers, it can also cause illness to swimmers. Beach closures become necessary and can cause significant losses for the tourism industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates toxic algal blooms account for the annual loss of roughly $82 million in sales for restaurants, hotels and other

tourism industries within the United States. Shellfish, and all the things that eat them, naturally accumulate the toxins as they filter algae from the water for food. Consumption of tainted shellfish can lead to a serious illness that includes digestion issues, tingling sensations, a rapid heartbeat, coordination problems or even death when medical treatment is not quickly sought after. The recent Domoic acid event that sickened and killed hundreds of local marine mammals (and a few people) and delayed and damaged the local Dungeness crab season is an example of the type of algal bloom event that can have devastating impacts across the board.

Rising sea levels

According to the OEHHA, heatdriven expansion of ocean water accounts for about half of the global sea level rise in the past century. The other major contributor to sea level rise is water from melting ice caps, polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers. Sea levels have generally risen along the California coast, consistent with global observations. Since, according to the OEHHA, more than 70% of California’s residents live and work in coastal counties, where almost 86% of the state’s total gross domestic product is generated, managing these impacts is crucial for humans and wildlife alike. The OEHHA uses three tide gages — in Crescent City, La Jolla and San Francisco — to measure sea rise. According to their research, sea level has risen by about seven inches since the year 1900 in San Francisco and by about six inches since 1924 at La Jolla. Sea levels generally peak during years when El Niño conditions are present, and levels at all three locations on the graph rose in relation to both El Niño conditions and the warm blob. Sea level rise can have significant impacts on human populations, but it can also affect things like availability of breeding and pupping grounds for seal and sea lion species and damage fragile estuaries and river flows that fish, birds and invertebrates count on for breeding, feeding and raising young.

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As climate change has ravaged our local ocean, marine mammals that generally top the food chain have struggled, and some populations may be hard pressed to recover. Locally, common marine mammal species include harbor seals, Northern elephant seals, California sea lions, gray whales, humpback whales, orcas, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, bottle-nosed dolphins and harbor porpoises. Rare but not unheard of species include California sea otters and Stellar sea lions, blue whales and minke whales. While these animals are inarguably the top of the food chain, challenged only by our local great white shark population, that has not saved them from the effects of climate change. In 2019 alone 37 gray whales, one of our iconic native species, have washed up dead on local shores, most of them suffering from emaciation and severe malnutrition. An additional 118 have washed ashore along the entirety of the west coast. Others animals, from whales and dolphins to seals and sea lions, have altered their behaviors, historic ranges and seen ill health effects from the damage done to their ecosystem. According the Marine Mammal Center, “Marine mammals are ecosystem indicators, and the health of these animals provides insights into human and ocean health threats.” The Marine Mammal Center, located in Sausalito, rehabilitates and releases over 600 seals, sea lions and otters a year and performs significant research on a variety of local marine mammal species. Among the effects they’ve seen that can be traced to climate change include the rising sea level, warming water temperatures and increasingly acidic water. Rising sea levels can impact the availability of habitat for resting, birthing and nursing. Locally, Northern elephant seals have had their historic pupping grounds reduced, leaving babies vulnerable to storm surges and premature separations of mothers and pups. While marine mammals themselves are less affected by warming water temperatures than cold-blooded sea creatures, their primary food sources are often greatly affected. Schooling fish, such as sardines and anchovies, staples of local marine populations, tend to dive deeper and stay further offshore in the hunt for cooler waters, forcing their predators to expend greater amounts of energy to find them. According to the Marine Mammal Center, 2015 in particular saw a huge spike in sick adolescent sea lions, as mothers abandoned pups to go in search of food, and older pups struggled to travel and dive far enough to catch prey. Acidic ocean water, caused by changing water temperatures, can lead to dramatic algal blooms, and in this area, that can lead to a particularly deadly outcome, for humans and marine life alike. “One particular diatom, Pseudonitzchia australis, responsible for producing a toxin called Domoic acid toxicosis, is one that could have dramatic effects on marine mammal populations,” according to the Marine Mammal Center web page. “First identified in 1998 by The Marine Mammal Center, this toxin accumulates up the food chain and can cause seizures, disorientation and brain damage in animals that feed at the top of the food chain. In 2015, with record warm water temperatures, the largest algal bloom in history was observed off the west coast of the United States and resulted in over 200 sea lions suffering from Domoic acid toxicosis and also shutting down fisheries, such as Dungeness crab and razor clams, to human consumption.” A paper from the World Wildlife Federation on the effects of warming oceans on cetacean (whale, porpoise and dolphin) populations found that “breeding in many species may be timed to coincide with maximum abundance of suitable prey, either for the lactating mother or the calf at weaning. Therefore, any changes in the environmental conditions that determine prey abundance may cause a mismatch in synchrony between predator and prey, either in time or location. Migratory cetaceans that travel long distances between feeding and breeding areas may be particularly vulnerable to this mismatching.” Sea level rise may, on the face of it, not seem problematic for species which spend their entire lives in the water, but the paper points out that “important habitats for coastal species and species that require coastal bays and lagoons for breeding, such as gray whales and humpback whales, could be adversely affected.” Finally, the paper points out that since climate change is not the only threat faced by cetaceans, a shifting of their home habitats or migration patterns could result in the animals leaving sanctuaries or other real estate set up to protect them. “This could be a particularly important issue for relatively small protected areas that have been established to conserve specific populations, or habitats used for critical parts of an animal’s life history, such as breeding or calving,” it concludes.

Marine mammals serve as ecosystem health indicators as their diets and habits become affected by climate change

Gray whale deaths launch NOAA study

Photo provided

Demographics of sea lion pups show a population under pressure According to the California Office of Environmental and Health Hazard Assessment, (OEHHA), annual sea lion pup birth counts at San Miguel Island between 1997 and 2016 ranged from a low of 9,428 to a high of 27,146. The greatest declines occurred in 1998, 2009, and 2010, all years characterized by warm ocean conditions. According to their compiled research, pup production is a result of successful pregnancies and is an indicator of fish and cephalopods that serve as prey for sea lions. High pup counts in 2011 and 2012 suggest that pregnant females experienced good foraging conditions in these years when cooler ocean conditions prevailed. The number of births declined again in 2015 and 2016 in response to warmer ocean waters due to a marine heat wave and El Niño conditions.

On May 30, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association launched an investigation into the unusual spike in gray whale stranding and deaths along the west coast, labeling it an “unusual mortality event.” According to NOAA, this is the largest number of dead gray whales washed ashore since 2000. Gray whales migrate along the west coast from winter waters in Mexico where they give birth to summer feeding grounds off Alaska. The whales rely largely on their summer feeding in the Arctic to last them throughout the year because they do not feed extensively while migrating or wintering in Mexico. Many gray whales that have stranded this year have been skinny and malnourished, with some showing signs of emaciation, suggesting that some whales may be exhausting their energy reserves this year before they reach the Arctic to resume feeding, according to NOAA researchers. On June 7, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) released a statement on the whale deaths. In part it said, “More dead gray whales have washed up on west coast beaches this year than ever before, a likely result of human-caused climate change. It’s heartbreaking that so many of these magnificent creatures have perished because we continue to take little or no real action to combat global warming ... the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration has now declared the elevated gray whale strandings along the West Coast an ‘Unusual Mortality Event’ and is devoting more resources to study it. “Early reports show that many of the whales starved to death because they had an inadequate food supply during their feeding season in Arctic waters. Scientists believe the loss of sea ice due to climate change has disrupted the Arctic ecosystem and reduced the population of shrimp-like amphipods, the gray whale’s main source of food. This means whales are starving to death during their long migration north after the breeding season in Mexican waters. “Gray whales are what is known as an ‘indicator species’ for ocean health, a measure of how well or poorly the oceans are faring. These deaths are further proof that climate change is having a profoundly harmful effect Photo Pixabay WHALES HAVE STRUGGLED at the top of the food chain as warmer oceans have pushed their on our planet.”

food sources into deeper waters, forcing larger energy use on the giant mammals. In additon, plastic can cause blockages in their stomachs, leading to starvation as food cannot be properly digersted.

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KELP FOREST Photo Monterey Bay Aquarium, Tyson V. Rininger

WHILE THIS BULL KELP thrives inside of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Kelp Forest Exhibit, the bull kelp on the Sonoma County coast has been reduced by about 93% due to a combination of environmental stress factors.

A devastating cascade of catastrophes turns vibrant kelp beds into underwater deserts Heather Bailey and Katherine Minkiewicz SONOMA WEST PUBLISHERS While there are flashier species out there, the plight of kelp, the giant tree-like algae that have been a dominant feature of the California coastline, is the one that demonstrates the local oceans dire situation. Once, the great kelp forests flourished, providing habitat and food sources for myriad native aquatic species, but altered ocean conditions driven by climate change — and one badly timed sea star plague — have left barren oceanic deserts in place of once lush underwater jungles. “Kelp is really the foundation of an ecosystem, so the whole ecosystem is really upended. When you take that out it can cause

traumatic changes,” said Andre Boustany, principal fisheries investigator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Boustany said it can affect all the animals in the ecosystem since it is where countless species — from otters to rockfishes and abalone to sea stars — forage and live. “It would be like taking all of the redwoods out of the redwood forest,” he said. The primary species of concern is the bull kelp (Nereocytis luetkeana), according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), which for centuries has created “a rich subtidal home for the many fishes and invertebrates that lived and thrived in this region of the state. Today, bull kelp forests should be the foundation of our nearshore coastal ecosystem. The floating canopy of this brown algae gives shelter to young fish and sea stars, and the kelp itself provides food for valuable species, such as red abalone

Photo California Department of Fish and Wildlife

PURPLE SEA URCHINS have dramatically risen in population and devoured much of the kelp forests off the Sonoma Coast.

and red sea urchin.” Most scientists agree the problem started in 2013, when a wasting disease began to plague sea stars along the coastline. According the University of California at Santa Cruz, “Sea stars along much of the North American Pacific coast experienced a massive die-off in 2013-14 due to a mysterious wasting syndrome. The disease, called ‘sea star wasting syndrome’ (SSWS) has persisted at low levels in most areas, and continues to kill sea stars. Similar die-offs occurred in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, but never before at this magnitude and over such a wide geographic area. (At least 21) species of sea stars have been affected by the current SSWS event.” Their death is an unpleasant one, as the disease decimates the bodies, leaving dismembered potions of limbs drifting in the tide whilst the main section of the body collapses into jelly. While the disease does seem to progress through a given ecosystem in a particular order (the sunflower sea star is usually the first species affected) it is not clear to researchers at UCSC whether it does actually move from one species to another in a specific pattern or if some species are simply able to fight off the effects longer than others. The significant impact on the sunflower sea star population was the first domino in the kelp forest disaster, because they are the predator of the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) a voracious and invasive species that ingests massive amounts of kelp when left undisturbed. According to a study by the CDFW and published in Wildlife Research, in 2014, a large patch of warm water developed in the Pacific, stressing the existing kelp, slowing both growth and reproduction and damaging fronds and stem tissue, leaving them even more vulnerable to purple urchins. The CDFW has found that the purple urchin population is currently 60 times higher than normal, and that in the past five years California’s kelp forests have declined by 93%. The “urchin barrens” have left behind a rash of dead and starving red abalone, once a prized commercial and recreational catch. As the abalone population plummeted, the fishery for abalone was closed through 2021, though some fear the closure may be permanent. “The warm water conditions were associated with disruptions of coastal ecosystems along the Sonoma Coast, including harmful algal blooms, mortality of sea birds and marine mammals, and declines in kelp beds along our coast. The decline of kelp

Graphic courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife

THE KELP FOREST off the Sonoma County coast has slowly been deteriorating due to several environmental stress factors such as an explosion in the sea urchin population and increased water temperatures. has led to the starvation of red abalone (that feed on kelp), leading to population declines in red abalone and the closure of the recreational fishery for red abalone in Northern California,” explained Eric Sanford, a professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis, and a researcher at the Bodega Marine Lab. Sea otters once played a pivotal roll in containing urchin populations, but their nearextinction has left one less predator on the prowl for the urchins. The thriving otter population along the central coast has provided some protection for the kelp forests there, the northern population was largely wiped out by fur traders in 19th century. While repairing the climate damage that leaves the kelp vulnerable will take time, local scientists, researchers, fisherman

and grassroots organizations have come together to try to help local populations by holding urchin gathering days, where purple sea urchins are removed from the environment. Unfortunately, unlike their red cousins, purple urchins are not in demand as an edible, commercial commodity. However, studies abroad show that these efforts may be the equivalent of putting a finger in a dyke. Tasmania lost most of their kelp in the early 2000s and studies there have shown that on extensively barren grounds, even significantly knocking back the urchin population (by introducing a species of lobster that is their main predator there) doesn’t mean a return of the kelp. Similarly, an urchin barren in Hokkaido, Japan, is still bare after almost 80 years.

August 2019 deep trouble Page 5


Plastics entangle all types of animals and are ingested at alarming rates debris removal event in Sonoma County,” Higgins said. “It’s also the largest citizen SONOMA WEST PUBLISHERS scientist event in the world,” she said, noting that volunteers keep Chris Brokate, the man who has track of and report the types of organized more beach cleanups in debris they collect, data that is then the last five years than anyone else turned over to the California Coastal in Sonoma County, has one word for Commission. you: plastics. According to Higgins, the most That’s what he sees most when he common objects found during their takes volunteers out to the coast to beach cleanups are cigarette butts, do a cleanup. plastic bottles, food wrappers, “Plastics of every kind — plastic polystyrene (Styrofoam) and bottles, plastic caps, plastic toys, microplastics. containers of all kinds. Water bottles “Styrofoam packaging is huge,” — there are too many water bottles. she said, “and I’m not sure why Ugh!” exclaimed Brokate, the we’re finding so much of that stuff founder of the Clean River Alliance. here. It could be because of our Plastics make up a large portion significant flooding events. It could of what is known as “marine be that a lot of businesses are using debris,” which is having its moment that for packaging takeout foods. in the sun thanks to the discovery of “The biggest problem with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to Styrofoam is that it breaks up into which Sonoma County, like all of the such small pieces that it’s almost west coast, is a regular contributor. impossible to collect. Styrofoam is Unfortunately, there’s still plenty even more harmful to wildlife than of marine debris left over to pepper regular plastic because it’s so the coast of Sonoma County. porous that the marine organisms attach to it quicker so it is more likely to smell like and look like food.” Marine debris is basically litter Ditto for microplastics, which are and trash that ends up in the ocean very small pieces of plastic (5 and waterways. According to the millimeters, or less than a quarter EPA, 80% of marine debris inch) that come either from the originates as land-based trash, and breakdown of larger plastic objects the remaining 20% is attributed to or from industrial products like at-sea sources such as commercial plastic microbeads, which are used fishing vessels, cargo ships or cruise in some cleansers and beauty ships. products. The overwhelming majority of Higgins said she also sees a lot of marine debris off the Sonoma Coast plastic agricultural ties of the sort comes from right here in Sonoma used in vineyards and shotgun County: either traveling down the shells. She’s also seen a growing Russian River or from coastal number of syringes, thanks to the visitors. opioid epidemic. How does the plastic cup you got Most people find marine debris your iced latte in end up as marine ugly and unsettling, but for the most debris? Sometimes through littering, part it’s not much of a health danger and sometimes accidentally, like to people — except for sharp objects when that cup you were sure you that beach goers might accidentally recycled falls out of a garbage truck step on. Accidental ingestion of or an overfilled garbage can and microbeads is a concern, but hasn’t blows down the storm drain and been linked yet to any specific into the watershed. health concerns. According to a Marine debris, National Oceanic however, can be deadly and Atmospheric to wildlife, Administration particularly sea (NOAA, birds and marine pronounced mammals. “Noah”), “There’s two the most types of impact common for wildlife,” materials Higgins said, that make “entanglement up marine and ingestion. debris are Both end up plastics, usually with glass, the loss of life metal, of the animal.” paper, “First, cloth, there’s the rubber and entanglement wood. But issue,” she said. most experts “This involves agree that animals getting plastic is the wrapped up or single biggest entrapped by fishing line, culprit. rope or cord … Plastic bags, The United Nations’ once they begin to Cea Higgins disintegrate, turn into marine pollution group estimated that 60% to plastic string and that 95% of marine debris is plastic. The becomes an entanglement issue.” California Coastal Commission, Ingestion is the other danger that which bases its estimates on marine debris, particularly plastic, California beach cleanups, claims poses to wildlife. that plastic makes up 90% of marine “Plastic can either visually look debris off the California coast. like a food source — the primary Cea Higgins is the executive example is jelly fish and floating director of Coastwalk, a nonprofit plastic bags — or, as organisms that advocates for public access to attach to it, it can actually begin to our coast via the California Coastal smell like food,” Higgins said. “It Trail. Coastwalk is also the official can move up the food chain — as one Sonoma County organizer of species ingests it and then is eaten California Coastal Cleanup Day, by something else.” which is scheduled for Sept. 21 this Whales are at particular risk, she year. said, because of their feeding habits. “California Coastal Clean-up Day “Gray whales scoop stuff up from is the largest volunteer event in the the bottom, and they pick up all the world and definitely the largest marine debris that settled. And then

Laura Hagar Rush

What is marine debris?

Photo NOAA Marine Debris Program

THIS IS JUST A SMALL SAMPLE of the variety of plastic marine debris found on Sonoma County beaches. This plastic can further break down and posion sea life in addition to clogging digestive paths. you have opportunistic feeders — scooping up large amounts or water — so you have two ways whales can end up ingesting plastic when they’re just trying to do their normal feeding pattern. “We’re getting all these necropsy results for humpbacks and larger whales in which they’re finding so much plastic in their digestive systems that the whales are unable to feed themselves and literally die from starvation.”

Cleanups and education

Beach cleanups, like those offered by Clean River Alliance, Coastwalk and Surfrider Sonoma County, are one solution to the problem of marine debris, removing debris that might wash out to sea (or wash back out to sea). Coastwalk does one massive cleanup every year, while Surfrider Sonoma County has volunteers out on the beaches at almost every major summer holiday. “We used to do beach cleanups the day after holidays, but we’ve changed that strategy,” said Sarah Heyne, vice chairperson for Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation. “Now we do our cleanup on the same day as the holiday, because that adds to the educational component. We find a lot less trash the day after because we were out there encouraging families to pick up their own trash, and people were seeing us out there with the buckets and grabbers.” Brokate said that Clean River Alliance takes a multi-pronged approach to cleanups. “We mitigate trash at every level,” he said. “We do the beach cleanups; we do river-based cleanups and land-based cleanups around the river. We have an Adopta-Highway program where we clean up five miles of roadway that parallels the river. We do storm drain education and clean our streets in summer and winter to prevent things from going into the storm drains.” Brokate even has a program engaging the homeless along the river to collect trash. “They have staged (i.e. readied for pick-up) tens of thousands of pounds of trash for us,” he said. All three groups also do litter and marine debris education in local schools and in the community.

Lifestyle changes

Photo Open University

A DECAYING BIRD at Midway Atoll reveals a digestive tract filled with plastic, illustrating how birds across the ocean suffer. Plastic trash like this has been found as a cause of death for everything from birds to whales. Photo of Higgins by John Hershey Photo of Heyne provided

Ultimately, the activists most involved with this issue are urging individuals to make personal lifestyle choices to reduce the amount the plastic and other packaging they use. “Step 1 would be awareness of the amount that exists currently,” Higgins said. “If we think about the fact that plastic is not biodegradable — it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Every single piece of plastic that has ever been made

since the ’50s and ’60s is still with us today. And we just keep adding more.” “There’s a lot of power in what you do as a consumer,” she said. “We’re not going to get a shift in how food is presented to us and packaged unless there’s a demand.” Heyne said the Sonoma County chapter of Surfrider has been active in two national Surfrider programs, Rise above Plastics (see sidebar) and Ocean Friendly Restaurants, which certifies restaurants as “oceanfriendly” if they do the following: • No expanded polystyrene use (aka Styrofoam). • Proper recycling practices are followed. • Only reusable tableware is used for onsite dining, and disposable utensils for takeout food are provided only upon request. • No plastic bags offered for takeout or to-go orders. • Straws are provided only upon request. Heyne said her chapter just kicked off Ocean Friendly Restaurants locally in Sonoma County at the end of July, but that she is excited to see how that goes.


Because plastic makes up such a large percentage of marine debris, legislative efforts have been focused around reducing plastic use. Some municipalities in Sonoma County, like Sebastopol, have already banned single-use plastics. Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins is working with Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers and others on a program to tax singleuse plastics and use the proceeds to fund early childhood education. They hope to put a measure on the ballot in 2020. The state of California has already banned plastic Sarah grocery bags and has a “straws on request only” law. Recent marine-debris legislative actions include the following: • AB 619, the “Bring Your Own Container & Reusables Act” was just signed into law on July 15. The measure allows — but does not mandate — vendors at public events to serve food and drinks in washable cups, dishes and utensils, and to allow customers to bring their own containers. • SB 54 and AB 1080, the California Circular Economy and

Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, sets goals to reduce waste from singleuse plastic packaging and products and ensure the remaining items are effectively recycled. It passed out of the Assembly in July and is set for an appropriations hearing in the State Senate on Aug. 12. There is also some national legislation in the works. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (DCalif.) will be introducing legislation to tackle the plastic waste crisis this fall. See information at Surfrider: Ten Ways To Rise Above Plastics Here are 10 easy things you can do to help keep plastics out of the marine environment: 1. Choose to reuse when it comes to shopping bags and bottled water by using cloth bags and metal or glass reusable bottles. 2. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess packaging, straws and other disposable plastics. Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at barbecues, potlucks or takeout restaurants. 3. Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos. 4. Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them. A great way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plasticlined cups. 5. Go digital! No need for plastic CDs, DVDs and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online. 6. Seek out alternatives to Heyne the plastic items that you rely on. 7. Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose No. 1 (PETE) or No. 2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates. 8. Volunteer at a beach cleanup. 9. Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene foam bans and bottle recycling bills. 10. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to Rise Above Plastics.

Page 6 deep trouble August 2019


Shortened or eliminated fishing seasons are needed, but markets struggle to adjust

diving is popular. Not only are industries and fishermen affected, but consumers are impacted, too. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a program that creates and updates science-based recommendations so businesses and consumers can make sustainable seafood choices, has a lengthy list of seafood choices to avoid. It includes: Basa, Pacific cod, crab, Atlantic wild halibut, spiny lobster, Mahi Mahi, octopus, Orange Roughy, Pollack, Canadian and Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, sardines, sharks, shrimp, squid, swordfish, Albacore tuna, Bluefin tuna, Skipjack tuna and Yellowfin tuna. According to the Seafood Watch, these species are best to avoid because they are “overfished, lack strong management or are caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.” “People’s tastes for different things change over time,” said Brent Hughes a coastal ecologist and a biology professor at Sonoma State University. “For instance, canned sardines were big in the ’40s and ’50s.” Due to overfishing, the sardine population was almost depleted and virtually all of Monterey’s canneries were closed down, which is why current programs like the aquarium’s Seafood Watch is an important and useful tool. Good alternatives for the aforementioned list include: Farmed Branzino, Canadian Pacific cod, lingcod, U.S. spiny lobster, Canadian, Portuguese and Spanish octopus, wild oysters, Canadian salmon, Canadian wild and Honduras-farmed shrimp, snapper, Mexican squid, swordfish, tilapia and Rainbow and Steelhead trout. To view the best options list, see the aquarium’s chart at its Seafood Watch website.


Fisherman’s Cove cafe, deli and bait shop offers restaurateur Gary Singh a slower paced life from the challenges of once running a finedining restaurant in the Bay Area, yet the Bodega Bay business still presents some challenges, namely the startling changes to the local fisheries, many of which have gone from thriving to suffering. While local fisheries like Dungeness crab, other shellfish and salmon may ebb and flow, a combination of calamitous events have lead to curtailed Dungeness crab seasons and the complete closure of red abalone until 2021. Increasingly warm waters, drastic reductions to the kelp forest, harmful algae blooms and more form what scientists and marine researchers are calling “the perfect storm,” a slew of events that are affecting local waters, ecosystems and fisheries. “Environmental stressors included impacts from a toxic algae bloom off the Sonoma coast in 2011, a widespread sea star disease in 2013 that was followed by an explosion in the sea urchin population, and the warm water conditions that have persisted offshore since 2014,” an article on marine management from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife states. This marine series of events has been trickling its way down to local restaurant owners, like Singh, as well as fishermen and seafood lovers alike. While heaping plates of barbecue oysters and hot bowls of clam chowder keep coming out of the Fisherman Cove kitchen, Singh — who’s owned and operated the eatery since 2011, said the shortened crab season has impacted the business. “This year our local crab season was cut short so we lost all of that and that definitely had an impact on the sales, to the availability of the local product and on costs, too,” Singh said. Dungeness crab season for the Sonoma/Mendocino coast typically starts in November and goes until the end of June, however, due to an algae bloom that creates a toxic acid called Domoic acid, the season was closed in mid-April, according to Richard Ogg, a commercial fisherman who helps test crabs for acid in Bodega Bay. While Domoic acid is a naturally occurring marine-based toxin that doesn’t cause harm to marine life it is harmful to humans. With warmer ocean temperatures, more frequent algae blooms can occur and grow at a faster rate that creates higher levels of acid. Shellfish then accumulate higher levels of the toxin in their flesh. Eating shellfish with Domoic acid can cause vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and dizziness. Ogg said if there is an amount of acid greater than 30 parts per million, then the crab is not good for consumption. Consequently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had

Photos Katherine Minkiewicz

AS SEASONS CLOSE or shorten, fishermen have had to rely on other species to fill the void. The rising levels of Domoic acid in fish and other underwater life can be poisonous to humans and is brought on by environmental factors. to cut short the crab season.

Time equals money “The crab season was cut so we lost all of those three months,” Singh said. “Not only did it affect not being able to get the fresh catch, but all of the fishermen. If they’re not working, they have to wait until the salmon season ... and are out of work, and we were pretty slim.” Singh, with Fisherman’s Cove, has two boats to fish for local product like crab. He said in terms of sales, “I think we were impacted about 15%.” According to an article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2015 Domoic acid-related closures led to a $100 million value decline in west coast Dungeness crab fisheries. Ian Taniguchi, a senior environmental scientist for the marine region with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said due to this commercial loss, there have been talks on the possibility of getting disaster relief funding for the commercial Dungeness crab industry.

Ogg, who is also vice president of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, has been fishing commercially near Sonoma County for 20 years and sells his product to the Tides Wharf & Restaurant in Bodega Bay. Ogg’s main focus is in four fisheries: crab, Albacore tuna, salmon and black cod. He said for this latest crab season his catch was about average to below average due to the drastically shortened season. “It is a significant impact to fisherman and an unfortunate decision,” Ogg said. “First of all, some guys fish until June and a greater part of their income comes from that and it is difficult to make that up at the end of the year.” He said the impact is also huge on buyers who often rely on the last two months of the season to get and sell product. “Fisherman are impacted, buyers are impacted and consumers are impacted,” Ogg said. Another shellfish impacted by Domoic acid is mussels.

THE LOCAL DUNGENESS CRAB SEASON was curtailed this year, closing in mid-April as opposed to June due to Domoic acid.

This year the California Department of Public Health issued quarantine on the collection of mussels intended for human consumption to help prevent human cases of Domoic acid poisoning. The quarantine is in effect from May 1 to Oct. 31. Also affecting the shellfish and the fishery is an increasingly warmer climate. Most recently a three-day heat wave in June and low tide caused a massive die-off of mussels on the Sonoma Coast as far north as Fort Bragg. UC Davis researcher Jackie Sones told ABC7 news in a July 9 article, “We have seen smaller dieoffs, but never a die-off to this extent.” Sones estimated in the article that the mussel death was in the tens of thousands.


The other fishery that has been completely altered by the “perfect storm” of environmental factors is abalone. “In 2011 we had a harmful algae growth in the Sonoma County coast in what is called a red tide … After that we saw an impact in the form of sea star death all along the coast. Sea stars are a predator for sea urchins and with the sea stars being lifted out, that correlated with an explosion in the purple sea urchin population,” Taniguchi said. Taniguchi explained that a sea urchin’s main source of food is kelp. With more sea urchins eating more kelp and with the other environmental stress factors, the size of the local kelp forest was reduced by 93%, thus affecting the abalone population that normally rely on kelp for food and shelter. This sequence of events led to a drastic drop in abalone. “That prompted us to curtail the (abalone) fishery and led to its closure,” Taniguchi said. Not only is the season closed until 2021, but Taniguchi also pointed out if the season does reopen, then it may be curtailed depending on the status of its population recovery. “We did have an economic assessment and it is estimated that it is at a $44 million loss,” Taniguchi said. Additionally, an economic impact statement from the California Fish and Game Commission said the closure will cost an estimated $15 million to $25 million to businesses frequented by abalone divers, including hotels, campsites, restaurants and sports equipment rental shops in coastal towns where

Confronting the problem

So what can be done to combat environmentally stressed out fisheries? While there isn’t any easy twostep answer, there are a few practices and tips that can help. “We’ve gone through a lot to make sure we do not deplete the resource,” Ogg said of Dungeness crab. For example, Ogg uses crab fishing gear that helps streamline the measuring they have to do in determining which crabs can be kept and which can be thrown back. He said it’s typically better to let smaller ones escape in order to keep the species sustainable and populated. “There are escape rings that minimizes the amount of measuring we have to do,” Ogg said. The stainless steel rings are 4.25 inches and sit in the rectangular crab trap pot. With this device the smaller ones can escape and allow for growth of the population. “It’s another way to keep fisheries sustainable,” Ogg said. “We also put together a degradable cotton material on the pot.” In terms of how to address the abalone issue, the answer is a bit more complicated, however, Hughes said aquaculture might be a good solution. Hughes said there is currently a big push for shellfish aquaculture — the farming of fish and other seafood. “The only place to find Abalone is at farms,” Hughes said. He said another popular pick for farming has been tilapia and some species of salmon. “It hasn’t been a big money maker,” Hughes said. However, he added it might start catching on as an alternative to fishing. Anna’s Seafood, a seafood purveyor based out of Petaluma that comes to the Healdsburg Farmers Market each Tuesday, does offer aquaculture options. While they do offer local oysters from Point Reyes, many of their offerings are farmed in Greece. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, when good aquaculture practices are used it can have little environmental impact and when done correctly, aquaculture can help limit habitat damage and sometimes disease. As for Singh, he said he has been focusing on taking advantage of the local salmon season in the absence of crab. Singh said of his business, “I just wanted to do sea-to-table and I thought this was a great location for it.”

August 2019 deep trouble Page 7



Zoë Strickland


The land that runs alongside much of the Sonoma County coastline, though not directly impacted by vanishing kelp or sea creatures, is also experiencing the impact of outside intervention. Coastal prairies, a type of grassland, are common along the coast where plants are able to receive moisture from fog. According to a resource put out by the Sonoma Marin Coastal Grasslands Working Group (part of Sonoma State University’s Center for Environmental Equity), California has lost 90% of its native coastal prairie land. As non-native species begin to take over land that was once full of native, coast-specific plants, local organizations are trying to combat the spread of invasive species and allow for the recuperation of the land and the species. At Salt Point State Park and Manchester State Park in Mendocino County, the California State Parks are working to cultivate the local coastal prairie to encourage the return of Behren’s silverspot butterfly. “We’re comparing mowing and grazing to reduce our invasive grassland and create more flowering plants,” said Terra Fuller, senior specialist environmental scientist for the Sonoma-Mendocino District of the California State Parks system. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the butterfly has been listed as endangered since 1997. A final recovery plan for the species was released in 2016, and outlines the species being spotted as far south as Salt Point. By periodically mowing and introducing grazing to the area throughout 2018-20, the state parks system is hoping to recreate the floral habitat that’s ideal for Behren’s

silverspot butterfly. “The elimination of burning, the elk population and the invasion of non-native grasses has resulted in a dense monoculture of invasive grasses,” reads a flyer put out by California State Parks. As such, the invasive species taking over Salt Point State Park and Manchester State Park are using resources necessary for the growth of the early blue violet, the only host plant for the butterfly. Once grazing and other forms of invasive species management reduces the level of invasive grasses in the area, propagated early blue violets will be planted in an effort to help increase the amount of Behren’s silverspot butterflies in the area. At the Bodega Bay Marine Reserve, restoration efforts on the coast are focused on bringing back species of plants native to the area, and taking out the non-native species that have taken over. “There’s been a real push to acknowledge the coastal prairie that we have, classify and understand that, and focus on the coastal prairie that we have and rehabilitate it and restore it,” said Suzanne Olyarnik, reserve director at the Bodega Bay Marine Reserve. For the past 10 years, the reserve has primarily focused its rehabilitation efforts on dealing with velvet grass (Holcus lanatus), an invasive species of grass that easily reproduces, forming mats in the land that once housed an abundance of native plant life. “Velvet grass really changes the community,” Olyarnik said. “It’s a really wicked enemy. It reproduces both sexually and asexually, it puts out an astronomical amount of seeds from each plant, but it also grows under the ground. What it tends to do is make these big mats — in doing so it really outcompetes a lot of the native species around it.” The level to which velvet grass takes over the surrounding area has led to reduced species diversity in the area, changing land

Photo Jackie Sones

SUZANNE OLYARNIK observes spring wildflowers in the Bodega Marine Reserve coastal prairie. Native species of plants have struggled along the coast as invasive species come in and natural habits such as deer grazing have been removed. that was once full of a variety of plant life into land that’s primarily taken over by one kind. To try and fight against the onslaught of this invasive species, the folks at the Bodega Bay Marine Reserve have worked to pull, mow and herbicide their way through the swaths of velvet grass. In areas that are less dense, volunteers go out and help pull the plant; areas that have dense coverage of the plant are subjected to monocot-specific herbicides meant to knock the density down; and other areas are mowed over before the plant flowers and has a chance to let out seeds. After mowing the plant over repeated years, Olyarnik said that the lack of growth will cause the plant to die off over time. Different kinds of eradication work aside, “there isn’t a silver bullet for Hulcus,” Olyarnik said. Every year, the reserve monitors the land and keeps track of where the velvet grass is located. Doing so allows them to keep track of

what plants they need to remove, as well as enables them to make sure no large groupings of the grass are forming. “There’s a lot of management that has to be done every year,” she said. “Every year we do our satellite searches, so new plants can’t get a foothold, and then we continue to work to knock back places where it’s gotten out of hand.” After years of work — and more to go — the native species are coming back. “What we expected to have to do was go in and replant a lot of the natives, but what we found is that because we have such a good seed bank, we didn’t even have to do the replanting,” Olyarnik said. “Once the Holcus was knocked back, the natives were able to fill in.” Since the Bodega Bay Marine Reserve has been protected as a reserve for 50 years and has had limited levels of outside impact, the land has been able to build up a sizeable native seed bank.


As marine life and the ocean are being threatened by outside forces, work is being done to help protect and preserve the ocean and its inhabitants. “Anybody who’s paying attention knows this is one of the wonders of the world,” said Richard Charter, senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation, gesturing behind him in the direction of the coast. “There are two reasons — one is that it was always one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the other reason is because people have always protected it. It’s not here by accident, it had a lot of close calls.” A love for the ocean and coast, coupled with a desire to protect it, is a driving force behind many of the people who are working to preserve and maintain Francesca Koe, a board member for the Greater Farallones Association, shares Charter’s sentiment. When she moved to northern California 25 years ago, she discovered scuba diving, working up the ranks and eventually became a scuba diver and teacher. In 2007 Koe was chosen to help create and design marine protected areas along the coast as part of the Marine Life Protection Act as a result of her inwater expertise. From there, she continued to advocate and work to better the health of the northern California coast. “It just really spoke to me to continue advocating in whatever way I could,” she said.

Tackling the kelp decline

For the Greater Farallones Association, Koe co-chaired a kelp recovery work group, which produced a Bull Kelp Recovery Plan in April. The plan covers a range of topics relating to the disappearance of bull kelp, as well as strategies for kelp recovery. The recovery plan includes both tier 1 activities that should be addressed immediately, and tier 2 activities that are suggested for future consideration. Activities in the tier 1 category primarily revolve around harvesting purple urchins and focusing on an action plan to address Sea Star Wasting Disease. “We’ve had these series of unfortunate events,” Koe said. “We’ve had the warm water blob sitting off the coast, heating things up ... and then you couple that with sea star wasting disease, which killed the sunflower sea star.” All of these different factors

contributed to the cultivation of an environment that’s detrimental to bull kelp. Because of the increased water temperature, kelp was receiving less nutrients and the sunflower sea stars aren’t there to feed on urchins, Koe said. As a result, the urchin population is flourishing, decimating bull kelp in its wake. In her own time, Koe volunteers for group restoration efforts that focus on harvesting purple urchins. About once a quarter, if the weather allows, groups of volunteers will come out to a specified location and help remove the urchins. “When we do these removals, the volunteers will come — the fish and game commissioners and the department increased the number of urchins that an individual could take so that we can have these events — they are usually there at these events signing people in, giving out bags and then they will take them out, they will measure them,” Koe said. Most recently, a group met in Fort Bragg on July 27. According to Koe, the group of 50 divers collected more than 250 gallons of urchin. Those who collect do so for a variety of reasons. “Some people will take them for compost, some people will do other things, some people will use them for christmas ornaments,” Koe said. On a more scientific level, Koe said that work is being done to see if there’s a possibility for purple urchins to become a commercial item. Oftentimes, red sea urchins are harvested for food. However, if marine scientists can figure out how to “fatten up” the purple urchin, “humans can potentially be the predator,” Koe said. Doing so would ideally lead to the commercialization of the purple sea urchin, reducing the need for groups of volunteers to go out and harvest them. “If we can remove what keeps eating the kelp … then we think we can give the kelp a fighting chance,” she said. While addressing this part of kelp forest decline is important, there are other factors about the state of the ocean that need to be addressed, Koe said. Namely, the impact of climate change. “I’m not trying to be the purveyor of doom, but all of these things are related,” she said. “The kelp forest is such an important shelter and forage for all kinds of fish. It’s a neighborhood building block.” Over the past five years, California’s kelp forest population has declined by 93%. “This is climate change, this is what it looks like,” she said. “The oceans are warming, and this is an impact. If 95% of the redwood forest disappeared, it would be alarming. This is the same thing.”

At the government level

Charter spends a lot of his time traveling to meetings and speaking in support of and against issues pertaining to the coast. Most recently, he spent time speaking against a proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seeks to conduct a helicopter dispersal of rodenticide poison onto the Southeast Farallon Island in an attempt to eradicate mice that attract burrowing owls that prey on the eggs of the ashy storm petrel. On July 10, the California Coastal Commission reviewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal. According to the project report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March, the eradication of the mice will benefit species that are native to the island. “The benefit of this conservation action is significant from a national perspective because of the importance of the South Farallon Islands for breeding seabirds and for their endemic species,” reads the report. “The islands hold the largest seabird breeding colony in the lower 48 United States, including the world’s largest colony of ashy stormpetrels. Mouse removal would help satisfy the Service’s goal of invasive species control in the United States. “Additionally, the eradication of house mice at the South Farallon Islands supports the Service’s priority to facilitate ecological adaptation in the face of accelerated global climate change by removing a non-climate change stressor from the Farallones ecosystem. Mouse removal will also benefit wilderness character since mice significantly impact the natural character of the Farallon wilderness.” However, the method of mice removal is being called into question due to the possible impacts that it will have on the local environment. Namely, the impact of Western Gulls that may ingest the poison and show up on beaches. A report from the EPA also recommended that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arrange for a review of the project, specifically if the poison drop is unsuccessful, “since house mouse eradications historically have had relatively high failure rates compared to rats and the possibility exists that, should the effort fail, resources may have to withstand impacts from rodenticide along with the continued impacts from mice.” In a July letter to the California Coastal Commission, Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins stated that she is concerned that the suggested strategy of removal will “pose significant risks to the sanctuary and adjacent fragile

Photo Francesca Koe

CITIZEN SCIENTISTS Karsa Parker and his mom Amanda check out organic material like urchins. coastal ecosystems and non-target species.” Charter was at the commission meeting on July 10, encouraging the California Coastal Commission to weigh using poison to eradicate the mice against the possibility of nontargeted species being harmed or dying as a result of the poison drop. Prior to the commissioners voicing their opinion, the agency withdrew its application. Another issue coming down the pipeline is the continued preservation of offshore land from drilling. At the coast, the state controls the first three miles, Charter said. Beyond that, the water is controlled by the federal government “Over the course of the last 40 years, there has been only one mechanism to gain permanent protection from federal offshore drilling — that is a national marine sanctuary,” he said. The first part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary was protected in 1981, with the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary becoming protected in 1989. “That has been our iconic milestone for protecting this coast, but it only protected the Sonoma coast as far as Bodega Head,” Charter said. “When Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey was first elected, she spent the whole time trying to expand that sanctuary farther north. That was one of the several things she tried to do.”

Prior to Woolsey leaving office, the rest of the coast up to just passed Point Arena was granted permanent protection. This part of the protection has recently been called into question, Charter said. In April 2017, an executive order signed by President Donald Trump called into question some of the federal waters that had been protected from offshore drilling. “He decided that this part here, from Bodega Head to Point Arena should be reviewed. That’s still going on,” Charter said. The review is being performed by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and doesn’t have an anticipated release date. “He’s deciding still whether this part is protected or not,” he said. “He may take it away, which would mean that Bodega Head to Point Arena could suddenly be opened to offshore drilling.” One of the most important aspects of protecting land, Charter said, is using local government. “As you get down to the local heart of democracy, it’s still working,” he said. “People are accountable to their constituents because they’re right there. It’s important that local government be populated with smart, environmentally conscious people — especially now. “In Sonoma County we need to protect the things we have protected before, or those that have gone before us have protected — because they’re all threatened right now.”

Page 8 deep trouble August 2019



Negative impacts are affecting marine life from the sky to the sea floor 1. Sea birds: Birds have been killed by ingesting and getting caught in plastic. Small pieces of plastic are particularly harmful, such as bottle caps and packaging. Birds that feed on fish have also faced problems as fish have moved to deeper waters to stay at the right temperature, out of diving reach for their normal predators. 2. Sea lions: Sea lions have also had issues with energy expenditure in pursuing their prey. Without proper food sources, breeding has seen a sharp decline in some areas.

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3. Elephant seals: The large seals have had to deal with not only warming ocean waters, but the warming and changing air. Their thick layers of blubber store needed energy, but could also be detrimental in too hot an environment.


4. Sea otters: The population and habitat of the sea otter has been diminished due to hunting and human development and are a rare sight to see on the Sonoma Coast. Attempts to relocate some of the animals back here from areas where they are more plentiful have been unsuccessful, as the otters have swam back to where they came from. Only time will tell if the otter will expand back to our coast. 5. Bull kelp: As much of a symbol of this part of California as the redwood tree, kelp once dominated the sea floor, creating an underwater forest that hosted a tremendous variety of wildlife. Now, most of it is gone, dying off from a variety of factors. Without this cornerstone, rocky deserts have replaced the once thriving areas.



6. Purple sea urchin: One of the main culprits of the kelp forests’ decline is the purple sea urchin. As wasting disease ran through starfish, the urchin population exploded and, left unckecked, ate through entire swaths of kelp. 7. Sharks: As top predators, sharks absorb the pollutants poisoning their prey, making them unsafe to eat and possibly affecting their health. In addition, it has long been recorded that sharks will eat nearly anything, including trash thrown into the water. Often, large sharks that are caught and die are found to have a wide variety of trash in their stomachs coming from various spread out locations.


8. Whales: Like their baleen relatives, sperm whales have also been affected by changing climate, particularly warmer ocean temperatures. The sperm whale normally is off the California coast year round, but typically is not seen further north during winter months. Recently the whale has been spotted in northern Canadian waters as well, possibly following food sources that require more specific temperatures. The sperm whale has particular problems with cold water, however, and if patterns of travel shift to areas where the whale becomes too cold, it can lead to an oil that gives it its name to turn waxy. In addition, its huge size may lead to it being blocked in by ice if it lingers too far to the north. Other whales such as the humpback and gray whale have also shifted to deeper and cooler waters to find food that requires the temperature. All this moving expends greater levels of energy, which can lead to starvation, as has been reported in several beached carcasses. 9. Squid: The habits of squid rely on ocean temperatures to be at certain levels to allow for food sources to interact with different depths. As oceans warm, predators are able to dive deeper for squid when they are less active, and at night, when squid normally rise up to shallower waters, a disruption in nutrient flow can lead to a lack of food. 10. Abalone: Once a fishing staple, the white abolone is off the menu indefinately, while the red abalone season has ended for at least the next two years. They, too, were impacted by the rise of purple urchins, which feed on similar items. Some attempts to breed abalone larvae in captivity have seen success, but whether those will be able to be reintroduced to bring back wild populations is yet to be seen. 11. Dungeness crab: Crustaceans, along with other shellfish like abalone, have been weakened by ocean acidification. Without the right pH, their shells become soft and ineffective. Further, as they feed, they pick up pollutants in their system, and when that gets bad enough, they become unsafe to eat.