An ocean of change: Warm gulf leads to unusual happenings, worried scientists

El Niño official this week; has the potential to combine forces with other warm water events

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have caught a tropically-inclined ocean sunfish 40 miles off Southeast Alaska’s Icy Point; Ketchikan is experiencing its largest plankton bloom in at least 30 years; Auke Lake’s out-migrating pink salmon left earlier this year than they ever have; water temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska and locally are a degree to several degrees warmer than normal, and whales have floated belly-up in Kodiak.


Unprecedented things are happening in Alaska’s marine environment, and while many scientists are reluctant to point to a clear cause, some say it appears to be climate-change related.

Whatever the case, any change in the ecosystem ripples throughout.

“I’m really worried. I’m very concerned. Hot water, lots of nutrients, potentially harmful alga blooms, and other species we don’t even know about … this is the time when exotic species get a foothold and just explode,” said Juneau-based marine ecologist Michelle Ridgway.



One of the most widely talked about abnormalities is the temperature of the water. A one degree Celsius is a big deal in science terms. A degree can welcome a new species. In the winter, a degree can keep the ocean’s layers from mixing, preventing fertilizer from reaching the shallower areas where fish like salmon find their food. It can accelerate a species’ growth — or mean they can’t find enough food to keep up with their metabolisms.

As of this week, 2015 is officially in an El Niño year, stated a July 13 NOAA update. There’s a more than 90 percent chance El Niño conditions will continue through the winter and about an 80 percent chance it will last through the first part of next spring.

“You can’t say ENSO (El Niño) is always good or always bad (for marine life),” said NOAA Research Fishery Biologist Joe Orsi. “It’s frustrating. As a scientist, you want to make a definitive claim on something.”

Pacific Decadal Oscillation, changes in the Pacific’s sea surface temperature known as PDO, also appears to have changed, scientists say. It appears to have shifted into a warmer phase last year, off its regular cycle.

“You can only speculate about the causes (of the shift) right now, but it (the PDO) drives our everything,” Ridgway said.

Ridgway has been measuring water column temperatures at locations around Southeast Alaska. Those, too, are high.

“I’m seeing higher surface temperatures than I’ve ever recorded,” she said.

The Gulf has also had a so-called warm “blob” for more than a year — an abnormally warm patch of water.

The blob is “just persistent, anomalously warm conditions in the western Gulf of Alaska,” Orsi said. “If (El Niño) keeps developing and moving northward, we’re going to have a collision of the two, so to speak. The big question is … how’s this all going to shake out?”


New Species

So far, warmer than normal temperatures appear to have resulted in part with more southerly species showing up in Alaska’s waters.

California sea lions have been observed around Yakutat, scientists say. In Southern California, a more typical habitat, this has been a record year for sea lion pup strandings. The pups are starving.

Other unusual species have showed up in Alaska, as well. Someone out of Sitka caught a yellowtail jack, a chartered NOAA research vessel 40 miles off Icy Point caught an ocean sunfish, and market squid have laid egg cases on king salmon nets at Little Port Walter’s hatchery. A separate June NOAA survey observed several of the squid off Icy Point.

“According to one of our experts in Seattle (a market squid has) been collected as far north as Kenai, but is considered uncommon in Alaska. It has been seen before at Little Port Walter, but this is the first time in recent memory it has been there in such high numbers,” wrote NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle in an email.

In the 1997-1998 El Niño cycle, Orsi said he and other scientists observed blue sharks and jack mackerel in Alaska’s waters.


Plankton, algae

It’s not just the big species that are showing up, however. Some algae and plankton are early this year. Some are simply not normal for Southeast Alaskan waters.

The Department of Environmental Conservation began testing seafood samples for domoic acid this summer, which causes amnesic shellfish poisoning, in addition to the regular testing they conduct for the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.

“The new results during the current bloom will either support the present small-scope monitoring of domoic acid, or it could drive a change to the (biotoxin monitoring plan),” said Elaine Busse Floyd, Director of the Division of Environmental Health for the DEC, in a June interview.

Gillnetters near Ketchikan usually have to deal with brown plankton that they call “slime,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish biologist Scott Walker. When it collects on their nets, the fish can see it.

This year, however, the bloom is particularly early and particularly bad, he wrote in an email.

The Ketchikan area is also experiencing its largest “blue/green algae” bloom in at least 30 years, Walker said.

“Based on sampling done by Gary Freitag with the University (of Alaska) here in Ketchikan, we have found our blue/green plankton has been a mix of coccolithophores and Prorocentrum,” Walker wrote in an email.

While the sight of water this color — like the spawn of schools of herring — is common around Ketchikan, especially in Sea Otter Sound, they’ve never seen it “to this extent and not in Tongass Narrows,” he wrote.

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Russ Hopcroft studies how plankton interact with their environment, as well as how they respond to climate change. Last year, he and a team saw some plankton typically seen in California, something usually observed in El Niño and warm years, but don’t yet have quantitative data, he said. He thinks, however, that the plankton stayed the winter.

“The real signal that we’re going to see is going to be this fall,” he said.

They monitor about four species of copepods (small crustaceans), he said, all of which had “unusually high” numbers.

“The other three were as high as we’d ever seen in 18 years of monitoring that,” he said.


Common anomalies?

Anomalies aren’t anomalous themselves, Ridgway said — “over the millennia, Eskimos have seen sea turtles,” she said.

It’s the overall conditions that are worrisome.

“This is a whole different world on a number of levels,” she said of current ocean conditions.

Other factors are abnormal too, she said: There’s not as much fresh water on the ocean’s surface, the ocean’s salt levels are higher than normal, and “temperature at depth is the real story.”

“There have been emergencies based on the temperature that have gone silent because nobody wants to sound the alarm, because the impact has been so profound,” Ridgway said.

An example, she said, was high temperature water in some Southeast Alaskan hatcheries leading to “altered fry release timing.”

Just the same, not everyone who deals with fish and the marine environment sees this summer’s conditions as so unusual.

Douglas Island Pink and Chum Director of Operations Rick Focht said the hatchery’s smolt this year were ready to release within the historical range of typical dates.

“I guess I would also say the same thing on returns from the standpoint of marine survival,” he said. “Marine survival rates just naturally vary from year to year. (Salmon’s) survival is based on a lot of different factors. It’s hard to single one out and say ‘It’s higher or lower because of this,’ so that’s kind of our take on it.”

Young king salmon seen gasping in net pens at DIPAC weren’t doing so because of temperatures this year, he said adding, “this is something that we have to be kind of really on the alert and be watching for any year in late spring.”

When salmon are bigger, so is their collective biomass. That combined with slack tides and annually rising temperatures can lead to lower oxygen flow in net pens for short period of time, usually around an hour, he said.

“It’s a combination of conditions that happen sooner or later almost every spring within the rearing season,” he said.

Troller Jim Dybdahl, who’s from Hoonah and has been fishing for about 30 years, said recently that he hadn’t noticed anything unusual this summer.

“The ocean goes up and down,” he said. “One year we’ll see red jellyfish, other years are relatively free of that kind of stuff … I don’t see anything really out of the ordinary, to tell you the truth.”

He hasn’t heard other fishermen talk about abnormalities either, Dybdahl said, though “a few chum salmon … were real small compared to … what we would consider normal.”

King fishing, on the other hand, has been great, he said.

“We’ve had, in my opinion, some of the best king salmon fishing as far as bigger fish go for like five years,” he said. “It was a wonderful feeling to have a big salmon on the line, fighting to try and get them on the boat.”

In fishing, you get used to the unusual, Dybdahl said.

“You kind of go out every week and wonder what you’re going to find,” he said. “It’s never totally what you anticipate.”


Effect on existing species

In Kodiak, nine fin whales and one humpback whale showed up dead in May and June of this year. Scientists don’t yet know why, said Kate Wynne, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and Marine Mammal Specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program. The animals looked otherwise healthy.

Test results recently showed that it wasn’t domoic acid (amnesic shellfish poisoning) that caused the whales’ death. At the end of August, Wynne expects results of two other tests — one for the toxin that causes PSP and one for Cesium 137 radionuclide, which is produced in nuclear reactors like the one that suffered damage after Japan’s 2011 earthquake.

“The cause of the temporally/regionally localized and unusual whale mortality here is (and may remain) undetermined,” Wynne wrote in an email.

Research Fisheries Biologist John Moran said he hasn’t seen anything unusual in whales locally.

“Everything seems pretty normal, at least locally, here in Juneau,” he said. “I know water temperatures are up here, but I haven’t seen it affecting the whales.”

This year, said fishery research biologist and station manager John Joyce, pink salmon passed through the Auke Creek Research Station’s weir the earliest they ever have. Dolly varden char also out-migrated through the weir on the earliest date ever, he said.

“Maybe they’re just migrating at the time they need to with the warm ocean,” he said.

After a day’s rain last week, the temperatures at the weir were 18 degrees Celsius, Joyce said. That’s 64.5 degrees Fahrenheit — unusually warm, especially because rain usually cools things off.

Last year’s returning pink salmon also produced the second lowest number of fry on record. This year’s returning pinks, in contrast, appear to be larger than average.

“I would be hesitant to put a direct cause on things,” Joyce said, asked if he has any theories. “We’ve seen, certainly, there’s a connection between the warming water temperatures in the Auke Lake system and migratory timing.”

The low snow year meant the system didn’t have a reservoir of cold water. In a normal year, water flow peaks in mid-May, when smolt usually leave.

“Normal,” however, may be soon redefined.


Oceanic future

A trend toward earlier outmigration in the Auke Creek System has “been remarkably dramatic the last four or five years, in terms of change,” Joyce said. “The trend is continuing, and in some cases becoming even more dramatic.”

Because they’re migrating earlier and growing faster — which suggests “favorable growing conditions” — outmigrating juvenile salmon sampled in June of this year were 20 percent larger than normal for that month, Orsi said.

Those changes can lead to a “mismatch” of ecological factors the salmon have evolved to fit into over the millennia, like plankton blooms and the avoidance of predators, Joyce said.

“It’s not necessarily just a shift in temperature or another factor, but could be a more complex ecological thing that you’re not timing right,” Joyce said.

High temperatures can lower production at the bottom of the food web, Hopcroft said, meaning that while animals may be able to grow faster, they could find their growth stunted due to lack of food.

“They could have trouble making ends meet in terms of their energy balance, and that opens the door for animals that are always being carried up from the California current system to persist and even get a foothold in the Gulf of Alaska for a season,” Hopcroft said. “The whole thing can ripple through the system.”

Warm winters can also “discourage the normal mixing and replenishment of fertilizers deep in the ocean,” Hopcroft said. Normally, surface waters cool over the winter, becoming the same temperature as deeper water. When that happens, it’s “easy for wind to mix surface water down deep,” he said. “That’s what replaces the fertilizers that were used up ... Our best guess is that this will lower the overall production of the animals that feed on those plants. We’re still … waiting for the data to come back from last fall and this spring.”

Once juvenile salmon are out in the ocean, warmer water temperatures can have both positive and negative effects, Orsi said. When water is warmer, juvenile salmon need to spend less time in the perilous waters near the shore, where they’re prey for birds and other predators. If they have access to enough food, they also grow faster, meaning fewer predators can actually fit them in their mouths.

On land, Orsi pointed out, 2014 was a record breaker for Alaska (not to mention the entire planet). It was the warmest year in about 135 years of planetary temperature record-keeping.

“Something’s changing,” Orsi said. “There’s definitely a human signature there responsible for part of it. But you’ve also got natural cycles of things … This looks as close to climate change as you’re going to get.”

Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at


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