The Blob: How a warmer Pacific Ocean is changing marine habitat

Victoria-based oceanographers keep close watch on 1.5-million sq. km. area of warmer waters off B.C. coast

Unusually warm temperatures dominate three areas of the North Pacific: the Bering Sea

Unusually warm temperatures dominate three areas of the North Pacific: the Bering Sea

They call it “The Blob,” and it’s threatening to change marine habitats off the coast of B.C. and Alaska.

The Blob is an anomaly of nutrient-poor, warm water, the likes of which seasoned oceanographers haven’t seen before, says Tom Okey, a Victoria-based marine ecologist and adjunct environmental studies professor at the University of Victoria.

It could further affect the pole-ward migration of marine life already occurring along the Pacific coast.

“West Coast fishermen are chasing tuna to Alaska,” Okey says. “Fishermen recently caught a skipjack tuna – a tropical fish – in the mouth of the Copper River, one of Alaska’s most iconic salmon rivers.”

The Blob began appearing at the end of 2013, and spread to an area covering 1.5-million square kilometres across the Gulf of Alaska.

It arrived in the nearshore waters at the end of 2014, “where the waters remain much warmer than usual,” Okey says.

Okey has authored and co-authored papers in several peer-reviewed journals summarizing the impacts of climate change on Canada’s Pacific region, calculating the vulnerability of Pacific Northeast waters to the effects of climate change.

He’s quick to point out that while the ocean is highly variable, there are too many indicators suggesting the marine ecosystem is undergoing significant change, and it’s not for the better.

A naturally occurring cool period in the coastal Pacific ocean from 2006 to 2013, known to researchers as a cold regime, is believed to have masked the underlying signals of longer-term oceanic changes. That cool regime delayed more conspicuous changes in the ocean as well as our own socio-economic changes, Okey says.

Frank Whitney, with the Institute of Ocean Sciences in North Saanich, said winter winds blowing across the Pacific are possibly being impacted by decreased sea ice cover, which in turn could be driving up the ocean temperature.

“The warming of the Arctic and decrease in the cover of Arctic summer sea ice may have caused weakened westerly and stronger southerly winds in the North Pacific starting in the fall of 2013. As a result, warmer southern waters were pushed northward,” Whitney said.

Researchers say the Blob is responsible for low nutrients, low biological productivity and changes in currents, salinity, stratification, dissolved oxygen and acidity. Okey says it has also been linked to changes in the distributions, productivity and abundances of marine species including plankton, fishes, mammals and birds.

(Below: Tom Okey. Photo by Travis Paterson/News staff)

Okey and colleagues, including Dr. William Cheung of the UBC Fisheries Centre, estimated that some marine fishes along the coast are shifting northward at an average of 30 kilometres per decade, though other research suggests an even faster rate. But species shift at different rates, Okey says.

“What you get is re-shuffling and mismatches of co-evolved species,” he said. “When predators are showing up to feed, the plankton or other prey are sometimes not there at the same time that they used to be.”

Okey says there’s a pretty long list of indicators that suggest that species are reshuffling fast.

“We have some examples of past events with similar shifts, such as previous El Ninos including the early 1990s and 2005, when Pacific mackerel arrived in B.C. in huge numbers. As voracious predators, they ate much juvenile salmon and their prey. We need to prevent species extinction and we need to find approaches to help maintain the functional health of the system with reshuffled species, so we can help the species adapt to the environment, if we want to keep them there for a least a little while.”

One type of approach that Okay and colleagues are focusing on is spatial vulnerability assessment, the search for ‘climate refugia (areas of slower change), which can be protected or otherwise managed.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Predicting climate change impacts on Pacific salmon is complicated, but salmon are cold-water species in both marine and freshwater habitats, and are affected by changes in nearshore habitat and offshore food resources. It doesn’t look good for Pacific salmon species in the current ocean climate, Okey says. Chinook salmon may be particularly sensitive. As the preferred prey of the threatened resident Orca population in Canada’s Pacific, Orcas may be particularly affected by this warm anomaly thanks to decreasing food supply.

reporter@saanichnews.com

Just Posted

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority is calling on Transport Canada to rescind its ban to Feb. 28, 2022 on cruise ship stops in Canada, to allow planning to begin in advance of a reopening of the cruise industry next year.
Greater Victoria Harbour Authority seeks end to federal ban on cruise ship stops in Canada

Greater Victoria Harbour Authority CEO hopes cruises will resume by 2022

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes following provincial reopening announcement

Recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

HMCS Corner Brook returned to Victoria’s waters for the first time since 2015 on June 10. (Courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy)
WATCH: Navy surveillance submarine returning to Victoria waters

HMCS Corner Brook one of first submarines to receive new communications systems

(Black Press Media file photo)
Copper piping missing, as suspect found with tools in Oak Bay commercial block

Police briefs include missing dinghy, speed stop turned impaired, wallet swiped from unlocked car

A new multi-family residential project at the corner of Hillside Avenue and Cook Street will feature nine below market-priced units aimed at middle-income, first-time homebuyers, through a partnership between BC Housing and the developer. (Courtesy City of Victoria)
Middle-income first time homebuyers gain access to nine homes in Victoria

BC Housing partners with development community to create affordable purchases

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

Neighbours fight a small late-night bush fire with garden hoses and shovels in Cinnabar Valley on June 5. They couldn’t get help from local fire services because the fire was located in an area under B.C. Wildfire Services jurisdiction. (Photo courtesy Muriel Wells)
Neighbours on edge of Nanaimo city limits left to put out bush fire themselves

Cinnabar Valley residents tackle fire with hoses and buckets for two and a half hours

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. watching U.K.’s COVID struggles but don’t think province will see similar pitfalls

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Most Read