Farallon Institute Newsletter - Summer 2019
Around The Office
We are proud to announce that Dr. Trond Kristiansen has joined the team, coming from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research in Oslo, Norway, where he was a Senior Scientist. Trond brings expertise in developing and running computer models to simulate important ecosystem processes. In the past, he has used those models to explore plastic pollution, kelp forest ecology, and fish larvae distribution. At the Farallon Institute, Trond will apply similar modeling techniques to explore the California Current ecosystem, and will be a great addition to our ecological studies. Trond will also jump right into our NASA-funded project developing tools to transition the science community to cloud computing.
State of the Ocean - Summer 2019
Over the last few months, the California coast has been as windy as expected, more in the normal range than in the last few years. Winds are a primary force behind our cold and productive coastal marine ecosystem. Despite normal wind patterns, ocean temperatures are warmer than average during the periods when winds are relaxed, which happens intermittently throughout the summer. Though we have these almost normal conditions in California this summer, globally, June 2019 was the warmest June on record, bringing marine heat waves to Europe and Alaska/Bering Sea. Regardless of these high temperatures, no signs of an El Niño event are on the horizon for the coming winter. The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service has issued a statement that says the atmospheric and ocean conditions in the central Pacific are currently neutral (no El Niño or La Niña), and this is projected to continue through next winter.
Brandt’s cormorant colony damaged by spring storm
Alcatraz Island, typically recognized for the infamous criminals it once hosted, is also home to one of the only estuarine Brandt’s cormorant colonies in the world. This sleek black seabird with a turquoise neck pouch is useful as a sentinel species that can inform scientists about ocean conditions. Although Brandt’s cormorants are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and National Park Service Resource Management Policies, on Alcatraz Island they exist in a delicate balance on the island and can be impacted by both climate impacts and human disturbance. Changes in ocean climate often affect cormorants through food availability, and nesting birds on Alcatraz are prone to disturbance from visitors to the island (1.4 million annually), as well as the boat and aircraft activity around it. In addition to these recurring challenges, nesting birds faced an additional hardship this year.
This May, we observed a large impact from a single late-season storm. Cormorant eggs and chicks disappeared from 777 nests in the week following heavy rains, which was 43% of the nests on Alcatraz. The results were noticeable to the naked eye, with patches of the colony suddenly gone between research visits to the island (see photos above). To adequately manage and protect Brandt’s cormorants, it is necessary to first quantify the impacts that natural and human disturbances have on the population, and we are doing that in our work with the National Park Service. This is especially important in the face of a changing climate, so we can understand how to foster resilience of seabirds and other marine species.
The bright side of the story is that many birds built new nests after the storm and these are now overflowing (quite literally) with chicks! We’ll monitor the success of these post-storm breeders during our continued monitoring this summer.
Gray whale unusual mortality event
NOAA Fisheries has declared that the recent and ongoing occurrence of dead or stranded gray whales is an Unusual Mortality Event. An Unusual Mortality Event (UME) is defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response”. NOAA Fisheries has a panel of scientists that are the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events, established in 1991, that designates UMEs and directs necessary measures to study and respond to them. As of July 26, 2019, there have been 105 whales found in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, and an additional 86 whales have been found in British Columbia and Mexico. Some of the necropsies conducted on these whales showed evidence of emaciation, but the results are preliminary thus far and investigation is ongoing. UMEs can be indicators of ocean health—that is, their occurrence may indicate a substantial problem in the ocean ecosystem. Following the publication of this newsletter, you can get updates about this situation here.
Reducing the chance that gulls wills steal your snacks
A new study published in the journal Biology Letters examined the behavior of herring gulls wanting to steal food from people in the U.K. Researchers based in coastal towns sat out with French fries (in a sealed plastic bag so they couldn’t be eaten) to tempt and bait the gulls and then either made direct eye contact with any gull that approached the fries, or looked away from them as they approached. The gulls were timed until they pecked at the food bag. Results from this experiment showed that 1) gulls were deterred from trying to steal the fries in the presence of people and other gulls, 2) most of the gulls did not try to take the fries despite their indicated interest, and 3) gulls took significantly longer to approach the fries when the researcher looked directly at them than if they were looking away. Researchers also found a lot of variation between individual gulls about their courage in trying to steal human food. This study demonstrates that gulls show aversion to human gazes and people can alter gull behavior by simply looking at them. Remember to give those gulls a good stare-down next time you see them eyeing your snack!