Arctic plankton bloom speeds up

Climate researchers have been warning that the Arctic is particularly vulnerable to global warming. The shrinking of Arctic sea ice shows these concerns to be real.

A new report finds that the melting ice has triggered another dramatic effect, one that could disrupt the entire ecosystem of fish, shellfish, birds, and marine mammals that thrive in the cold waters.

Each summer, an explosion of tiny ocean-dwelling plants and algae, called phytoplankton, anchors the Arctic food web. But these vital annual blooms of phytoplankton are now peaking up to 50 days earlier than they did just 14 years ago, satellite data show.

“The ice is retreating earlier in the Arctic, and the phytoplankton blooms are also starting earlier,” said Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Drawing on observations from three American and European climate satellites, Kahru and his international team studied worldwide phytoplankton blooms from 1997 through 2009. The satellites can spot the blooms by their color, as billions of the tiny organisms turn huge swaths of the ocean green for a week or two.

The blooms peaked earlier and earlier in 11 percent of the areas where Kahru’s team was able to collect data. Kahru said the impacted zones cover roughly 1 million square kilometers, including portions of the Foxe Basin and the Baffin Sea, which belong to Canada, and the Kara Sea north of Russia.

In the late 1990s, phytoplankton blooms in these areas hit their peak in September, only after a summer’s worth of warmth had melted the edges of the polar ice cap. But by 2009, the peak of the bloom had shifted to early July.

“The trend is obvious and significant, and in my mind there is no doubt it is related to the retreat of the ice,” said Kahru.

Ecologists worry that the early blooms could unravel the region’s ecosystem and “lead to crashes of the food web,” said William Sydeman, who studies ocean ecology as president of the nonprofit Farallon Institute in Petaluma, Calif.

When phytoplankton growth explodes in population during the blooms, tiny animals called zooplankton, which include krill and other small crustaceans, expand in number as they harvest the phytoplankton. Fish, shellfish and whales feed on the zooplankton, seabirds snatch the fish and shellfish, and polar bears and seals subsist on those species.

The timing of this sequential harvest is programmed into the reproductive cycles of many animals, Sydeman said. “It’s all about when food is available.” So the disrupted phytoplankton blooms could “have cascading effects up the food web all the way to marine mammals.”

But a lot about the Arctic food web is not known, so any resulting decline in fish, seabirds and mammals will be difficult to spot. As the Arctic Ocean north becomes less icy, commercial fisherman have begun eyeing these vast, untapped waters as an adjunct to the rich fishing grounds of the subarctic Bering Sea, west of Alaska.

In 2009, the U.S. body overseeing fishing in the region, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, banned commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean, citing a lack of knowledge about how many fish live there.

“There are no catches authorized because we don’t know enough about the fish populations there to set a quota,” said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the Alaska office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

NMFS reported results from the first fish survey in 30 years of the Beaufort Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska. The survey found sizeable populations of several commercially valuable species, including pollock, Pacific cod, and snow crab. How these populations will respond to the ever-earlier plankton blooms is a big unknown, Sydeman said. But other research has shown that northern Atlantic cod populations crash when plankton blooms in that region shift in time.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Boulder, Colorado, reported that Arctic sea ice covered a smaller area than ever seen in February, tying with February 2005 as the most ice-free February since satellites began tracking Arctic ice in 1979. The annual average Arctic sea ice coverage has decreased about 12 percent since then, a trend that appears to be accelerating, said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the center. Summer ice coverage has declined even more dramatically, he said, with the Arctic losing almost a third of its late-summer ice over the past 30 years.

Japan stops hunting whales

Japan has suspended its hunting of whales and is near to formally pulling out only halfway through the current season in Antartica. The economics of the whaling industry is declining in Japan, with key figures in the Fisheries Agency disgraced for allowing a black market in the meat. The shift has raised hopes that Japan may be moving to end the 23-year-old program, which has ended the lives of around 10,000 Antarctic whales. 

The International Fund for Animal Welfare said government sources in Japan had decided to cut short the season, and the fleet would head back to port.

”Under pressure from all fronts, the Japanese whaling fleet is apparently withdrawing early this season from the internationally recognised sanctuary around Antarctica,” said the fund’s global whales campaign director, Patrick Ramage.

”We hope this is a first sign of Japanese government decision-makers recognising there is no future for whaling in the 21st century and that responsible whale-watching, the only genuinely sustainable use of whales, is now the best way forward for a great nation like Japan.”

An official at the Fisheries Agency of Japan, Tatsuya Nakaoku, said in Tokyo yesterday that, putting safety first, the fleet had halted scientific whaling for now.

When asked if Japan was considering bringing back the fleet earlier than planned, Mr Nakaoku said this remained an option and added that Japan’s whaling plans were not going smoothly.

Greenpeace Japan’s director, Junichi Sato, added: ”When the government says it is ‘considering’ something, they have already decided.”

After being pursued by Sea Shepherd, the whalers have had their kills stopped at a time when finances are tight in Tokyo and international diplomatic pressure is rising. An unconvinced Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson said he would not relax pressure on the factory ship, Nisshin Maru, which was around 2000 nautical miles from its whaling grounds, and still steaming away.

Nisshin Maru, closely pursued by the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker, was at last report running east near the Antarctic Peninsula, and approaching Drake Passage below South America. Captain Watson said he was still concerned Nisshin Maru might try to circumnavigate Antarctica and return to its whaling zone, far south-west of Western Australia. This year, a smaller whaling fleet came under sustained Sea Shepherd pressure, sharply reducing its capacity to catch a quota of up to 935 minke and 50 fin whales.

Meanwhile, the Chilean government said it planned to use naval assets to closely monitor the approaching factory ship. Chile has permanently banned whaling in its waters and forbids the transport of cetacean parts through them, but Nisshin Maru should be able to navigate Drake Passage without entering the Chilean zone.

Dolphin Gets An iPad

Merlin the dolphin is the first animal to get an iPad, and he’s using it to teach humans about dolphin communication. The researchers have found a way to waterproof the iPad and are now using it to help Merlin — an animal that lives in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico — to make associations between physical objects and digital representations of those objects. The next step will be to layer in verbs and prepositions, making the dream of interactive communication with the brainiest animals on the planet a true possibility. Original Posting

Oiled dolphin found near Ft. Pickens

Dolphin died shortly after help arrived

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla (WALA) – The tide isn’t just washing the oil over the beach. Wildlife is starting to feel the impact as well. An oiled dolphin was found beached on the shore.

“It had beached itself. Its sides were covered in a quarter inch of oil. We started splashing water, scraped oil off it sides and off its eyes,” said Christy Travis, who found the dolphin.

Help came immediately from the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, a non-profit organization, and they were able to stabilize the young female. Sadly, she died shortly after. What’s worse, is she may not be the last.

“It was very sad, it would make you cry. It was crying. There was pod of dolphins just off surf and they were jumping out of water and they were making noise,” said Travis. This is the first report of a dolphin found covered in oil on the Florida coastline.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist walked the beaches Wednesday morning as the oil washed in. “To have something like that on such a beautiful place, breaks your heart.” said Crist. “This is the worst, no question. I haven’t seen it like this anywhere else, never this kind of stuff.”

The beach is no longer packed with tourists, instead BP crews are everywhere. They are working by hand, slowly bagging up everything they can. – Christina Leavenworth

Gulf Oil Plumes

On Good Morning America, correspondent Sam Champion and Philippe Cousteau Jr. explore the toxic plumes of dispersed oil floating beneath the waves in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dolphins should be treated as ‘non-human persons’

Scientists say dolphins should be treated as ‘non-human persons’

Dolphins have been declared the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting they are so bright that they should be treated as “non-human persons”.

Studies into dolphin behaviour have highlighted how similar their communications are to those of humans and that they are brighter than chimpanzees. These have been backed up by anatomical research showing that dolphin brains have many key features associated with high intelligence.

The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing. Some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in this way each year.

Excerpt, from Times Online