Why Sea Lions Are Suffering as the Ocean Warms

Sea lions are known for their playfulness, but there's nothing fun about algal blooms.

Photo Credit: Dmytro Pylypenko/Shutterstock.com

A sea lion on a Washington beach curls into a fetal position, shuddering. Then it contorts its neck, craning its head into the air, clearly in distress. NOAA researchers in Washington were horrified by this recent footage from Long Beach:

’A sea lion with his head arched back, he's basically having seizures,’ said NOAA Fisheries Research Oceanographer Vera Trainer.

The cause of the seizure? Domoic acid poisoning, caused by the sea lion's exposure to a massive, record-breaking bloom of the algae Pseudo-nitzschia that stretches from California to Alaska. Researchers have never seen a bloom this size. The chains of algae they found on a recent research trip "looked like it was grown in a lab."

Trainer told Reuters:

"It's the longest lasting, highest toxicity and densest bloom that we've ever seen."

So what's causing the bloom? Scientists are still studying it, but there are at least two candidates: increased ocean acidification and warming oceans.

Plankton, including algae, form the base of the ocean's food chain. They serve as a food source for larger creatures and one of the prime sources of oxygen in the atmosphere. The plankton population has been on a marked decline in recent years, which is scary enough. However, a recent Rolling Stone article by Eric Holthaus cited a study led by Stephanie Dutkiewicz at MIT showing that acidifying oceans, caused by increased carbon in the atmosphere, can throw off the balance of the plankton population, causing significant changes with profound implications for other species that depend on them.

From MIT News:

”’I’ve always been a total believer in climate change, and I try not to be an alarmist, because it’s not good for anyone,’ says Dutkiewicz, who is the paper’s lead author. ‘But I was actually quite shocked by the results. The fact that there are so many different possible changes, that different phytoplankton respond differently, means there might be some quite traumatic changes in the communities over the course of the 21st century.’”

Sea lions may be able to cope with warming oceans and ocean acidification. (image: NOAA)

This paper only focused on the pH of the oceans, though. When you combine this change with warming temperatures and increased land precipitation due to human-forced climate change, you get a serious recipe for disaster. That disaster is starting to show up in news headlines.

In addition to the algae bloom, hypoxic "dead" zones are also spreading, caused by shifts in the plankton population, where so little oxygen exists in the water that many species cannot survive. Holthaus’s Rolling Stone piece described nightmare scenarios where hypoxic events, driven by increased precipitation and agricultural runoff into the oceans, choked the life out of the oceans and drove massive sea- and land-based extinction events.

That's exactly what's happening.

Trainer’s counterparts in the Gulf of Mexico have been shocked to discover a massive dead zone there this summer, much larger than last year's, which was actually expected to shrink in size this year. However, with climate change having driven increased precipitation in the watersheds that spill into the Gulf, more fertilizer runoff from human farming activity was washed into the sea, feeding the kinds algae that create these zones. This year’s dead zone in the Gulf is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

The West Coast algae bloom and the Gulf Coast dead zone are just two of several examples of the worst-case scenario for the oceans, and therefore for all life on the planet, playing out right in front of our faces. We don't have much time left to take meaningful action on carbon emissions—action that must include a ban on future fossil fuel exploration and the imposition of carbon pricing on the market. If we don't do those things, we face a future that will be Hell on Earth for us, but a warm little paradise for nasty little things like poisonous algae.

The danger from climate change is not in some remote future: it's here, it's now, and our generation, not some vague "future generation" is in serious, serious trouble.


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dcrowe is a Daily Kos member.