Nicole Smith

Walruses on a barrier island


In September of 2013 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed thousands of walruses hauling out on a barrier island off of Alaska.  On September 12th an estimated 1,500 to 4,000 individuals present and by September 27th there were approximately 10,000.  While similar events have been reported, scientists say it is a recent phenomenon. Walruses generally use floating ice in the Chukchi Sea to rest while feeding at sea but due to recent climate change and melting sea ice, it is more difficult for them—and other species, such as polar bears—to find resting areas.

According to Physics Today sea ice has reached its lowest area measurements since it began being measured in 1979-with a 55% decrease (7.5 million square kilometers to 3.4 million square kilometers). While sea ice has previously been very thick, containing multiple years of accumulation, the current sea ice is much thinner, containing just ice from one season.  The more transparent ice is much quicker to melt (Martin).

The effects on the individual walruses is varied and widespread.  They will be exposed to more stress, depleted food levels, more energy will need to be expended to find prey, trampling caused by stampedes of spooked walruses and increased predation (Knowles).  Disease also spreads much faster in populations that are overcrowded. There is evidence that certain mollusks, crabs and fish are moving northward and the shift in the food base is of a negative consequence for bottom feeders such as walrus and seal that prey on these species (Martin).  The walrus is currently listed as a “Threatened” species and the increase of stressors they face may push it over the edge to “Endangered.”

Thank You to OCEAN Researcher Nicole Smith

For more information regarding the 2013 haul out, as well as previous ones visit NOAA at

Martin, Jeffries, et al. "The Arctic shifts to a new normal." Physics Today. American Institute of Physics. Web. 21 Jan 2014.

Unusual Mortality Event: California Sea Lions  


This 2013 Pacific sea lion pupping season has been a dramatic one. Rehabilitation centers have been inundated with over a thousand emaciated and dehydrated pups since the beginning of 2013, making it a record year for rescuers. NOAA has declared this an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) and this is the 6th overall UME for California Sea Lions.  According to NOAA, The Working Group on Marine Mammal UMEs lists 7 criteria to qualify something as a UME and an event has to meet one or more of these criteria to qualify as unusual:

  1. Marked increase in the magnitude or change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared to prior records.
  2. A temporal change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  3. A special change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  4. The species, age or sex composition of the affected animals is different than that of animals usually affected.
  5. Affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition (e.g., blubber thickness).
  6. Potentially significant morbidity, mortality or stranding is observed in species, stocks or populations that are particularly vulnerable (e.g., listed as depleted, threatened or endangered or declining). For example, stranding of three or four right whales may be cause for great concern whereas stranding of a similar number of fin whales may not.
  7. Morbidity is observed concurrent with or as part of an unexplained continual decline of a marine mammal population, stock, or species.

This event most closely matches with item 1. above, however it likely qualifies under other criteria as well.

While the cause is currently undetermined, there are a few theories as to what is causing this mortality. The most publicized hypothesis is that due to less prey availability for these pinnipeds that the mothers are travelling further and for longer in search of food, making pups more likely to wander in search of their own sustenance. This is not only alarming for the health of the sea lion population but for the fisheries as well. Where did these fish go? What happened to cause such a drastic drop in population size? Answers to these questions are currently being sought out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and two other organizations have already gained preliminary results to the driving force behind this mystery.

Researchers from Australian Antarctic Division and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) provide some insight to this conundrum whilst studying climate change in Antarctica. With global temperatures rising, there have been substantial changes to phytoplankton abundance, which is an integral source of food to fish and krill. They suggest that the trophic level have been and will be affected soonest, causing a chain reaction up the food chain from microorganisms to large cetaceans. This would be in agreement with what is being witnessed in California with less fish present for the sea lion population.

Thank You to OCEAN Researcher Nicole Smith


For more information on California Sea Lions and other UMEs visit this link:

"2013 California Sea Lion Unusual Mortality Event in California." NOAA Fisheries. NOAA, 30 May 2013. Web. 4 Oct 2013.

Barlass, Tim. “Polar melt shakes up food chain.” The Sydney Morning Herald 7 April 2013. Web. 7 April 2013.

Hillard, Gloria. “Starving Baby Sea Lions Flood Southern California Shores.” 9 April 2013. Web. 9 April 2013.


Marine Fisheries Impacted in the Gulf of Maine


There is evidence that the fisheries industry in the Gulf of Maine is changing which has become a challenge to the livelihood of fisherman. According to the Gulf of Maine Research institute the water temperatures in the area have increased by 0.26°C every year since 2004.  As waters warm species travel north from their typical range to find preferential water temperatures.

The focus has generally been on cod, but this applies to all groundfish such as haddock, pollock and flounder which are typically managed together.  It is believed that the cod are going to deeper offshore waters, but according to scientist John Annala, it is a bit of a mystery as to where they have gone as they aren’t showing up in surveys, including ones done in Canada.  Fish from the Mid-Atlantic region have started moving north into the Gulf of Maine.  The species that are being found most often include butterfish, long fin squid, black sea bass and summer flounder.

While it seems that the fisheries industry would be alright as they could just switch to fishing different species, it is more complicated than that.  Different types of fish require different types of equipment to catch, which can be very costly.  Also, management practices are not in place for species that have not typically been found in the area.  There has also been an increase in lobster to the area, which would seem beneficial, but there has been an increase in lobsters that are shedding which sell for much less than the hard shell version.

Ecological issues can arise when new species move into an unusual territory.  The new species may compete with the historical species for food and habitat and there may be a lack of predators in the new range to keep the new species in check.  While some species may change their range, it is possible that they begin to change their habits to account for the change in temperature.  Examples include feeding at different times of day or shifting diets to account for loss of previous diet staples. It is possible that the whole food web of an area is altered and if equilibrium isn’t reached the ecosystem could crash.  Shell fishermen have also noticed an invasive green crab that has moved north with the warming waters and has become an unchecked predator. Phytoplankton are also affected by temperature.  In the ‘90s there was an influx of cold water that caused the phytoplankton to thrive, leading to increased numbers of zooplankton and herring (Jacobson).As the water warms, phytoplankton, the base level of the food web, could be disrupted causing instability in subsequent levels.  As the stability of the ecosystem decreases due to changing climate and species composition, it becomes more likely that it will not recover in the face of rapid change (Jacobson).

Thank You to OCEAN Researcher Nicole Smith

For more information on climate change in Maine and how it will disrupt not only the marine fisheries, but biodiversity and economics throughout the entire state go to and read the University of Maine document “Maine’s Climate Future: An Initial Assessment.”