As giddy as we were about last weekend’s tuna catch 90 miles out of Newport, a bit of sobering news today about early-season ocean conditions off Oregon’s Central Coast.
“We have had the lowest amount of upwellings so far this year that anyone’s seen in 25 years. We have a very unproductive ocean out there right now,” says Brandon Ford, a marine resource specialist at ODFW’s office right across the street from the boat launch.
He says a remotely operated vehicle recently found 100 feet of visibility at Stonewall Banks, some 20 nautical miles out of Yaquina Bay.
Great for divers, but also indicative of “nothing in the water for anyone to eat.”
Visibility at the banks is usually just 10 feet, he says.
“It was spooky it was so clear,” Ford says.
The Pacific off Oregon is not completely devoid of food — gray whales, orcas and, of course, lots of halibut have been spotted out of Newport over the last month — but this spring and summer’s odd, cool weather due to El Nino has broken down the “northwest wind machine” that usually produces rich upwellings off the shore, bringing a smorgasbord of feed for all sorts of marine critters.
“What it does is it pushes the surface water inshore and draws up the cold, deep water that’s very nutrient-rich,” says Ford. “It hits the photo layer, causes an algae explosion and that triggers everything.”
Too much of an explosion, when bacteria can’t deal with the ocean’s extreme productivity, has caused anoxic dead zones in the past.
At the moment, he’s more worried about feeding conditions greeting outmigrating Chinook and coho smolts.
“Unless we get some winds …,” he says, but adds, “It’s almost too late for this year.”
Bill Peterson, a NOAA oceanographer also in Newport, also worries about what this year’s inconsistent winds may mean for young salmon and steelhead as well as sea birds which time their runs to the ocean and nesting to meet food availability — but he also points out that the lack of winds may benefit albie anglers.
“When the winds stop blowing in July and August, tuna can come in super-close to shore — 5 or 10 miles,” he says.
The upwelling basically forms a thermal barrier that blocks warmer tuna waters otherwise pushing toward the beach.
“People don’t realize offshore off Oregon stays warm all year round,” Peterson says.
Boats are out catching tuna in April, 300 miles offshore, he says.
But wait, I asked Peterson, if there’s 100 feet of viz and no food at Stonewall, why the hell would tuna come cruising in so close?
He doesn’t know exactly what they feed on, but points out that tuna, a blue-water species, have evolved to deal with the problem of finding forage in low-food environments.
“It’s the dilemma of a warmwater fish that’s warmer than the ocean. They’re stuck living in tropical water, but they can swim fast and chase anything down,” Peterson says.
More northerly fish can’t fin as fast, but live in far richer environments, he points out.
For this year, there’s time for the upwellings to kick in. Peterson says 2005 started out this same way — a neighbor of Ford’s caught tuna 5 miles out of Depoe Bay that summer — but by mid-July, the winds kicked in and it “ended up being a good year.”
But at this point the tuna fishing has a looooooong way to go. Ford points out that by this time during 2007’s huge tuna season, 1,800 had been brought back to the dock coastwide. So far, only 19 have been counted, though that tally is only for Newport.
The Central Coast’s first sport Chinook fishery in two years has also started out “poor … on the order of one in 10 anglers have been catching a salmon.”
Meanwhile, as if all that wasn’t enough bad news, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch yesterday tossed a “stink bomb” on the state’s commercial fleet when it recommended consumers “avoid” wild-caught salmon off Oregon south of Cape Falcon because they claim the fisheries are unsustainable.
That’s due to the “perilous” state of the Sacramento River fall king run, Seafood Watch explained to The Oregonian.
Defends Ford, “We took a very conservative position on the number of fish we can catch.”