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NW Fishletter #380, April 2, 2018
 NOAA Scientist: The 'Blob' Will Continue To Impact Salmon For Years
When a high-pressure ridge appeared off the coast of Washington and Oregon in the winter of 2013-2014, it was just that--a weather event that warmed the ocean and prevented the winter storms that mix the ocean's cold, nutrient-rich deep water with its warmer surface water.
As this "ridiculously resilient ridge"--its nickname among some researchers--stayed put for two years and continued to spread and warm the ocean, it came to be called the Blob. Four years later, scientists are still studying the impacts of these never-before-seen ocean conditions that eventually covered 3.5 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Alaska.
"Things that got set in motion with the Blob haven't gone away," Laurie Weitkamp, a research fisheries biologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told NW Fishletter. "It's like a pinball machine--things are still ricocheting around. The ball hasn't gotten ejected yet."
Weitkamp confirmed that ocean temperatures, in places, rose to 7 degrees higher than average, as reported in a September 2016 National Geographic article. "The warm water spread farther, went deeper, and lasted longer than at any other time in recorded history," the magazine reported. "Animals showed up in places they'd never been. A toxic bloom of algae, the biggest of its kind on record, shut down California's crab industry for months. Key portions of the food web crashed."
This unusual and unprecedented event affected different species in different ways, setting in motion an imbalance that's not likely to correct itself soon, Weitkamp said. "The Blob was great for hake. They do well in warm water conditions. But for cold-water species, like salmon and crab--we're holding our breath to see what will happen."
Weitkamp said there's a double impact with something as pervasive as the Blob. First, there's the immediate impact. Salmon and steelhead that migrated to the ocean in 2014 and 2015 arrived to find a desert in their search for food. Many likely starved. For these migrating fish, the time when they first enter the ocean is critical for survival and will have a huge impact on how many return to the Columbia and Snake rivers to spawn one to four years later.
Anadromous fish coming to the ocean from the Columbia River tend to go different places when they arrive in the Pacific, Weitkamp said. "Steelhead are unique. They head straight out, so they, in particular, were in the wrong place," she said. Steelhead quickly swim straight west, out into the cold ocean water, some traveling as far as Japan before returning to their home rivers.
"It was really different than what they're used to," she said of the ocean conditions that steelhead experienced.
Weitkamp said the direct biological effects of the warm ocean conditions will continue for several years, as fewer fish return to spawn. In addition to the concern for steelhead, Weitkamp said 2017 ocean surveys found very low numbers of juvenile Chinook and coho, which will likely mean low coho returns this year and low Chinook runs in 2019.
When the ocean's complex food web is so severely altered, it can prompt some species to change their habits. The conditions brought humpback whales into estuaries, while California sea lions and pelicans began traveling in large numbers to the freshwater Columbia River in search of food.
"They come into the estuaries and at some point, they realize this is actually a better neighborhood than what they left behind," Weitkamp said. Smarter species, especially, may adapt to their new habits and habitats rather than return to their old ones.
One question scientists are asking now is whether the Pacific Ocean will ever return to the way it was before the Blob came on the scene, Weitkamp said. "There are some reasons to think that we might be in a new normal, and a lot of hope that we're going to go back to the old normal." -K.C. Mehaffey
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