Changes

by Guest Blogger

July 17, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

Today was a day of transitions. We spent today getting a little down time, preparing for departures and arrivals, plotting the next leg of the trip, and watching the fog roll in and roll out at five minute intervals. All my life, I’ve heard the cliche “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait five minutes and it will change,” but the Bering Sea is first place I’ve been where that saying is literally true. It’s sunny. It’s foggy. It’s sunny. It’s rainy. It’s calm. It’s choppy. It’s warm. It’s freezing. The local weather god clearly has a fear of commitment.

We spent the morning charting the course that will take us north to St. Matthew and St. Lawrence Islands, where we’ll begin our humpback research in earnest. We’ll leave tomorrow (weather permitting), spend two days around St. Matthew (unless we only have one), spend the next three days crisscrossing the northern Bering looking for humpbacks (if all goes as planned) and anchor in St. Lawrence on July 21st (um…probably).

Today was also a day for crew changes. Happily, we have two new team members to share the wealth. One of whom is Dave, who will lead our efforts on killer whale and  humpback research and who, we are told, makes killer grilled-cheese sandwiches. So, we got that goin’ for us.

Even with all the comings and goings, we managed to get out to search for killer whales around Otter Island. The frequent fog made spotting difficult, and the calm seas got progressively rougher as we approached Otter Island. At times, the island itself vanished into the fog, so it’s not too surprising that we didn’t see any whales. We didn’t see much of anything. Despite the name, there are no more sea otters on Otter Island. They were driven nearly extinct by commercial hunting in the 18th and 19th centuries. They recovered in much of Alaska during the last century, but never really made a comeback here. The Aleutian populations have been declining again since the 1990s, for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

Nor will you find sea lions, George told us, on Sea Lion Rock. From more than 500,000 animals in 1960, Steller sea lion numbers have fallen to around 20,000 adults today. Overfishing for pollock, a key prey species for the sea lion, is a key suspect.

I’d tell you the story of Walrus Island. But you can already guess the punch line.

All around this remarkable, wild sea, the ecosystem is changing. Seals, sea lions, walruses, even seabirds, are declining at staggering rates. Crab fisheries have crashed in one region after another. Other fisheries have followed the same trend, including, in some areas, the pollock fishery. The causes are complex. Overfishing is one obvious source of problems, but not always the only one. It is beyond doubt now that the climate is getting warmer here, and scientists are increasingly recognizing how that warming affects the wildlife of the Bering—disrupting food webs, causing some species to shift northward, and threatening others, like the walrus and the polar bear, with near-certain extinction. Many fishermen have seized on facts like these to argue that global warming, not overfishing, is the cause of wildlife declines. This tactic, in turn, has made some people who fight overfishing leery of talking about climate impacts. But I don’t think the answer is as simple as one or the other.

The sea lions, the birds and the pollock cannot choose which of these forces to be affected by. They are affected by both of them (and others).  And just as combining two different poisons can result in a new and far more toxic potion, the combination of overfishing and climate change has effects on this and other ecosystems that we’re only beginning to understand, but which appear far more toxic than either force in isolation. The question we have to ask ourselves is not “Which poison is worse?” but “How do we reduce both to make their combination less lethal?”

Stopping global warming demands immediate change, and we should, all of us, work to bring about that change. But even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, it will take decades to work the poison out of our global system. In the meantime, we have to adapt our fishing practices—all of our practices for that matter—to the new realities and great uncertainties of life in a rapidly changing world.

– Carroll 

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