Recently, on January 8th, a shocking and horrifying study was released with some tragic news for avian marine life. The dedicated conservation scientists at the University of Washington studied a mass die-off of seabirds during summer 2015 through spring 2016. CNN Wire states this die-off as “one of the largest mass die-offs in recorded history.” Coastal areas from California to Alaska saw over 50,000 birds wash up onto the shore, and an estimated one million birds died overall from a massive heatwave. This heatwave received the name “the Blob” and unfortunately has grave consequences for wildlife and marine ecosystems. The blob began in 2013 but came to its peak of power in summer 2015. The victim of the blob...an incredible seabird called the common murre.
A Whole Lot of the Blob
After El Nino intensified in summer 2015 through spring 2016, the blob grew in size and intensity. Less than one year is all it took to kill about one million common murres. The Blob was a huge patch of warmer water stretching 1,000 miles across the Pacific ocean and it raised the temperatures of the water 5-11 degrees Fahrenheit. It had detrimental effects on water composition, marine food chains, and ocean productivity.
After the heat from the blob raised water temperatures; a cascade of events followed. With warmer water temperatures, the activity of detrimental plankton species rose and algal blooms began. which affected the fishes’ diet. The smaller fish that the common murre eat became less fatty, smaller, and less nutritious. With smaller and less nutritious prey, a rise in predation from other fish ensued. These larger, predatory fish such as salmon and cod were able to hunt more often, and with greater strength than the common murre thus depleting the common murres’ main prey source. The predatory fishes’ metabolisms sped up as they consumed more and smaller fish. They became the top competitors for smaller fish. Cable News Network said, “It’s especially rare to see a patch of warm ocean water over such a large area, but scientists say global climate change is making these phenomena more common.”
Not So Common Murre
Photo Source: Phys Org
The common murre is found across the western coasts of the United States and up to Canada. They are considered auks and are part of the Alcidae family. These birds are found in ocean habitats and on sea cliffs. They can dive a whopping 500 feet underwater at speeds around 50 miles per hour to grab their prey! They eat small fish, such as herring and haddock, marine worms, and crustaceans.
Scientists believe that the common murre had a massive dieoff because they literally starved to death. Their prey sources dwindled as competition for prey increased with warmer temperatures, and they were outcompeted by larger fish. In additional years, the reproductive success of the murre has declined after a shortage of food. Biologists are still studying the effects of the large dieoff of the murre, combined with the low reproductive success and inability to repopulate after the Blob.
What Should We Do? Boo You, Blob!
Scientists from the University of Washington released information that other animals suffered greatly from the Blob, too. Such animals include sea lions, tufted puffins, and baleen whales. Their die offs were notable but pale in comparison to the million common murres that died.
Unfortunately, heatwaves such as the blob are becoming more common. The University of Washington discusses other heatwaves that are present right now. As global climate change effects increase, with them will come devastating events such as the dieoffs created by the Blob. The changes to the ecosystems in the ocean can have lasting consequences for our wildlife. The best thing we can do to help is to actively participate in the protection of our ecosystems. Whether this is supporting and donating to nonprofits, reducing your carbon footprint, attending and encouraging beach cleanups, or joining bird counts and citizen science; it is imperative that we take action to protect and conserve the wildlife that calls this planet home.
As unfortunate, heartbreaking, and terrifying it is to read about events such as Australian fires and heatwaves such as the Blob, this can only help wildlife and future generations understand our impact on this planet. Our next blog will feature news, statistics, goals, and exciting insight into Respect the Fin over the past year.
Written By: Bailey Higa